To waste or to waist

January 21, 2022

The metabolic food waste – what is eaten over and above what we need – is of the same order of magnitude as consumer food waste in western countries. And it is driven by the same forces that drive food waste before the mouth.

Sometimes I eat the leftover in the pot in order to avoid food waste, But does it really reduce waste? I recently mapped the carbon cycle of the Swedish food and agriculture system from farm to fork. Well, even before farm and after the fork, the research includes farm inputs (manure and other organic inputs as well as bought-in feed) as well as sewage. To see the total flow is a useful tool for increased understanding the system. The report and data is available here, in Swedish only.

One of the many interesting results was that the metabolic food waste, overeating, is as big as what is normally called food waste at the consumer level. Expressed in energy terms, which is a lot more relevant than weight, the amount of food supplied to Swedish consumers amount to 3,200 kcal per person and day. Based on estimates of real consumption, calculations based on human metabolism and sewage data as well as calculations based on the weight of the population I come to the conclusion that approximately 2,600 kcal are actually eaten. This means that food waste before-the-mouth corresponds to 600 kcal, 19% of the supplied quantity. Notably, not all of that is actually edible in the normal sense as it includes coffee grounds, peels of fruits and vegetables, bone as well as excess frying fat.

food in fridge

What’s in your fridge, photo: Gunnar Rundgren & Ann-helen Meyer von Bremen

The average nutritional need is maximum 2,100 kcal. This means that 500 kcal, or 16% per person and day is simply overconsumption contributing to expanding waists. On a global scale calculations by Elisabetta Toti and colleagues, published in Frontiers in nutrition 2019, estimate that 140.7 million tons of food is overeaten of which almost half is consumed in Europe, North America and Oceania. Of course this waste has the double effect of both increasing obesity and environmental burden of food.

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Is the consumer then to blame? Not really. Of course, we can always blame persons and individuals for all ills in the world, if they didn’t do this or that the world would be a better place. But we need to realize that the role of the consumer in a market economy is – to consume, to buy. All actors in the food system do their utmost to maximize sales. It starts at the farm level where there is massive overproduction of grains and soy which has to be sold one way or the other, as processed food, as corn glycose syrup, as animal feed (which is in turn converted to chicken, pork, milk or beef) or as biofuel. Food industries and supermarkets have certainly no incentives to reduce their sales, on the contrary. A recent analysis of the supermarkets in Great Britain by professor Lisa Jack concludes that:

”left us with a food system characterised by over-purchasing, over-eating, over-production and waste. Food is transferred to store cupboards in consumers’ homes and then left unused; empty calories are stored in our bodies; and edible food often ends up in bins.”

Supermarkets, governments and well-intended civil society organizations talk about nudging the consumers to waste less food. But food waste and obesity share the same root cause, a food system where (in particular ultraprocessed junk) food is too cheap and where all parties are herding the end consumers towards buying more and eating more.

At the heart of both the environmental crisis and the obesity crisis is the capitalist market economy. It is the definition of capitalism that capital is multiplied. This is accomplished by ever increasing production. And all that is produced ultimately need to be consumed. After all, not only food is overconsumed, most goods and services are overconsumed, be it clothes, mobile phones, cars or holiday trips. Putting the burden or blame on consumers is a cover to conceal the workings of capitalism and an ideological narrative by neo-liberal apologists.

Gunnar Rundgren

Gunnar Rundgren has worked with most parts of the organic farm sector. He has published several books about the major social and environmental challenges of our world, food and farming.

Tags: capitalism, food waste, obesity, overconsumption, overproduction