Worldwide we already produce over two thousand kilocalories (kcal) per person on average, the minimum level of energy humans require according to USDA dietary guidelines. Still, with all this production, 780 million people are living with chronic hunger, many of them living in rural areas dependent upon agriculture for their livelihoods.
The United Nations states that this horrific paradox is in part the result of “food wastage.” Estimates are that around one-third of food is lost or wasted, and food waste researchers consider this an underestimate of the problem. Hypothetically, if that waste were eliminated, that would add another eighty-five million tons of cereal.
The problem is pervasive. As Lisa Johnson, a horticulturalist at North Carolina State University focusing on food waste, points out, “[food waste] happens the entire way [along the supply chain] . . . as soon as the food is generated,” there is waste. At restaurants, in the fields, with distributors, at grocery stores, and at home, waste is massive. The FAO argues that “even if just one-fourth of the food currently lost or wasted globally could be saved, it would be enough to feed 870 million hungry people in the world.”
The FAO doesn’t offer a social explanation for why food waste occurs. Instead, it looks for technological fixes and market-based solutions. At bottom, that means seeking out how to best measure the problem of waste, finding better harvesting techniques, increase incentives and reduce risk to grow fruits and vegetables, more advanced packaging and better transport to prevent spoiling, and a public education campaign that gets consumers to understand that even if a tomato doesn’t look aesthetically pleasing, it can still be edible.
These solutions leave intact the profit motive undergirding our food system and the obviously oligopolistic concentration of power over commodity chains, making everyone dependent on unelected corporations for their sustenance. It addresses food waste from the standpoint of economic efficiency, but never the standpoint of equality.
Technology can resolve a lot of issues faced by agriculture, but it doesn’t address why producers would decide to leave food in the field rather than bring it to market, or why distributors would rather throw out food than deliver it to those in need. Both are absurd acts if your goal is to feed people. But that is not the goal of capitalist food production. Capitalist production is animated by an insatiable drive to profit and accumulate.
The UN and the FAO ignore the fact that our food system maintains a structural contradiction. Capitalist incentives lead to overproduction of food that is never delivered, and no one is under any obligation to utilize such a surplus and abundance for eradicating hunger. Once we understand this contradiction, we can see the capitalist food system as one of an absurd abundance.
Food, a Ridiculous Commodity
Let’s begin, as Marx did, with a commodity. A commodity is produced for its exchange value — its price. A capitalist uses money to make a commodity to sell to get more money. From this simple chain, numerous economic reasons arise for farmers to not harvest everything grown.
Food that isn’t commodified has no value for a capitalist, despite its biological value to a hungry person. The specific use value of food for that person is of no consequence. The farmer who has no use for such food, of course, is not being malicious — just responding to competitive market pressures.
Johnson, the horticulturalist, reports that as price fluctuates over the course of the growing season, farmers pick less crops. At the beginning of the season, the price for fruits and vegetables is higher than at the end. So as the season progresses, more and more produce is left in the field. Farmers recognize the effect of price — they are economic optimizers in a capitalist market. They leave more and more produce out of the supply chain in an effort to inflate the food’s price. Farmers are controlling supply to affect the price, regardless of the demand.
In his book Concentration and Power in the Food System: Who Controls What We Eat?, Philip H. Howard explains it succinctly: “Demand for agricultural products is inelastic, and producing more has the effect of reducing prices.”
Further, because it has such a low exchange value at the point of production, farmers will leave unmarketable food in the field. Lisa describes how “in the buying and selling of fruits and vegetables, often it’s cosmetics that is important; size, shape, the color, all that.” The consumer plays a role in what is a commodified piece of fruit and what gets tossed in the trash, which then leads distributors to standardize the fruits and vegetables they buy, incentivizing the farmer further to leave certain products in the field.
Farmers aren’t going to want to send a truck of vegetables, a transportation cost, to a distributor that will return them if they aren’t up to their aesthetic standards. It isn’t about whether a tomato or a sweet potato is edible, but whether it can be sold at a price that makes a profit.
Beyond the producers and consumers is a further layer of government policy that increases perverse incentives in the food system. All food researchers I have spoken with elaborated on how current market incentives lead to increased production of “junk” food inputs, like corn for high fructose corn syrup, at the expense of more nutritious crops.
Of all crops grown, only 2 percent are fruits and vegetables. Johnson describes a startling reality: “If we all went and bought fruits and vegetables today, there wouldn’t be enough for everybody.”
This is due in part because crop insurance and other subsidies are nonexistent for growers of fruits and vegetables. As Marion Nestle points out in Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, “from a nutritional standpoint, higher sugar prices might be a disincentive to consuming soft drinks, desserts, and candy, but from a financial standpoint, the policy is highly desirable.” In the 1990s, just one sugarcane operation representing one-third of Florida’s sugarcane production was receiving $60 million in subsidies, while a comparable fruits and vegetables operation would get almost nothing, a trend that continues through the present.
Alex V. Barnard, a sociologist and author of Freegans: Diving into the Wealth of Food Waste in America, elaborated a further example: Dunkin’ Donuts overproducing donuts knowing many will be thrown away. For the company, this is actually highly efficient, because the concern is to not miss a sale rather than conserving supplies.
The absurdity really becomes apparent when we understand, as Barnard described, that “we produce 3,700 calories of food per person per day in this country and we can’t eat all of that.” And while we produce that much, much of it is junk food that is unhealthy, with “USDA stats showing around 50 percent of the food we are throwing out in this country being either added fats or added sugars.” Overproduction is the norm of the system, because capitalists would rather eat some added cost by producing too much than miss a sale.
So, all in all, we aren’t feeding the hungry, we aren’t growing nutritious food, but we are increasing the value added, thus making food a good commodity. Barnard correctly surmises that “there is just a contradiction between a growth-based model and a product that you can only consume in a finite time.”
Thus, the argument that capitalist markets are efficient only works if by “efficient” we mean one thing: making profit in highly oligarchic markets.
And so food is treated as a commodity, and the moment it no longer has exchange value becomes waste. At that moment, as it loses all exchange value, it becomes what Barnard calls an ex-commodity.
Barnard clarifies when the capitalist food system considers food a commodity or not; all food that isn’t sold is waste. Not because it is inedible, but because it wasn’t exchanged in a market. He says this makes edible food in a dumpster an ex-commodity.
A commodity is just a matter of social relationships. Food can be for exchange or for use. This means, of course, food can be something other than a commodity; it can have a goal other than producing profit. If our goal was to feed people as opposed to profit, what would that entail? At bottom, it would mean changing food from a commodity into a right.
Certain movements have arisen to deal with food waste and to work towards the ideal of food as a right. Some of these, like gleaning, address the matter through what Jacob Rutz, an agroecologist at North Carolina State University focusing on food security, explains as individual self-fulfillment. While recouping food as ex-commodities, the act is focused on voluntary events with no criticism or discussion of why food is left in the field. Further, it makes invisible all of the labor that passed through the fields, turning their backbreaking work into a charitable activity.
For Rutz, gleaning misinterprets the personal as political, which he argues is really that “all actions have these political repercussions” outside of the individual “in the social structure.” To clarify his point, he offered a distinction between two types of mobilizing around food waste. The difference was between a Christian group that was collecting food to be thrown out by grocery stores and sharing it with students and the homeless, and a much more radical idea of “sharing, and intentional Christian communities, which were basically communist” — for example, the Community of the Franciscan Way’s farm house in North Carolina. In these intentional communities, food is actually grown and self-reliance enables the community to reproduce itself.
Following in this more radical direction has also been freeganism and Food Not Bombs, direct action strategies concerned with anticapitalist food justice. Freeganism involves the act of reclaiming edible food waste as an act of political critique, demonstrating how capitalist value does not equate to social or biological value. Reclaimed as an ex-commodity, food can return to its use value of satisfying people’s hunger.
For Barnard’s activism and research, he participated in activist tours teaching people where to dumpster dive, to understand the scale of food “ex-commodities,” and to stand appalled at the grotesque contradiction. Freeganism produced a peripheral economy that largely eschewed exchanging money but subsidized itself on the excess of an overly productive capitalist system.
Food Not Bombs works similarly, as a visual example of mutual aid demonstrating alternatives. It is a transnational, decentralized organization where people get together and share vegan food with homeless and non-homeless alike. Sometimes this is reclaimed food, other times it is food people have purchased and prepared to share, and even food they’ve grown themselves. The purpose is to engage in mutual aid and address the priorities of a society that builds bombs and not shelter, that maims but does not feed.
All around the world, from Tijuana to Manila to Houston, these chapters operate. At times they fight ordinances criminalizing survival, such as banning direct distribution of food to the homeless, and other times they play a role in protest and organizing. Currently, co-founder Keith McHenry is building an educational farm to continue this work and connect more directly with constructing alternative forms of production.
All of these actions are meaningful, and maintain a bulwark against an absurd system. But while these models provide spaces for mutual aid and demonstrating the fundamental absurdity of the system, they do not create long-term alternatives for producing food as a right as opposed to a commodity. This would require a radical reimagining of the food system.
Currently, the food sovereignty movement, led by La Via Campesina and other organizations, propose to integrate the ideas of mutual aid and autonomy in the development of alternative modes of production able to supplant the current capitalist food system. In their Declaration of Nyeleni, they describe the universal right to food: “All peoples, nations and states are able to determine their own food producing systems and policies that provide every one of us with good quality, adequate, affordable, healthy, and culturally appropriate food.” At bottom, this entails people taking back ownership over food systems, actually managing farms themselves or communally, for the betterment of all.
Actions like Food Not Bombs and freeganism carry forward the kernel of this idea, the establishment of a food commons, but have yet to propose large-scale alternatives able to supplant the current, massive capitalist food system (though activists involved in those struggles will be key to any future construction of sustainable, just alternatives).
We Cannot Continue a Failed Model
In the end, the major difference in strategic approaches to addressing hunger is not between these anarchist strategies and other socialist and sovereignty programs. The principle cleavage is between a left-liberal faction that clings to the erroneous idea that this system can be reformed to serve human need and the radicals who insist that it can’t.
Most policy-makers do not attempt to tackle the problem of whether food should be a commodity or a right. The UN and the FAO have adopted strategies that completely ignore the reality of capitalist imperatives. They emphasize technology, markets, and policy as panaceas for reorienting the food system to be more just and ecologically sustainable. They propose that people support “local farmers or markets and sustainable food choices” along with “[using] your power as a consumer and voter” — all individualized actions amounting to the cliché “vote with your fork.” Or take “project aim” number three from their “Save Food” initiative:
Increase adoption of good practices to reduce food losses in specific value chains. It will do so by providing a platform for centralizing and sharing information, developing analysis, creating necessary coordination mechanisms and supporting capacity building on [Food Loss and Waste] Reduction.
There is no acknowledgement that the structure of the food system itself produces the very problem they claim to resolve.
Considering the absurdity of the present food system, this is wrong. Movements like freeganism and Food Not Bombs have highlighted these absurdities, not just within the food system, but also how guns-and-butter decisions lead to hungry people.
We need to go even further: to begin to build socialist food organizations able to produce and distribute decommodified food.
The food sovereignty movement has been in the lead describing and implementing what this will look like. Their vision involves reintegration of the food system into the life of communities, as opposed to the detached global commodity chains that we are dependent on and alienated from.
While by no means a perfect model, the Special Period implementation of a food sovereignty program in Cuba demonstrates possibilities. Factories, schools, hospitals, and other large-scale anchor institutions now have their own functioning gardens, able to supply their cafeterias with produce. Large-scale communities like Alamar have urban farms, and apartments maintain small scale organic crop beds.
Usufruct land was further cooperativized and spaces were opened for small-scale land ownership. All of this was coordinated with a legion of scientists from across disciplines working through a participatory system linking modern scientific knowledge to traditional cultural-ecological knowledge. The goal was food for use, as a biological value powering the body — not profit. Through this program, Cuba went from a 30 percent reduction in daily caloric and protein at the onset of the crisis in the early 1990s to its highest levels of production by 1997, according to scholar Peter M. Rosset.
Another example is Basel, Switzerland, home to a beautiful experiment in urban social and solidarity economy, which I learned about from Isidor Wallimann, a sociologist at Syracuse University. In Basel they formed the Social Economy Basel, beginning with the Social Economy Association in 1996. This has produced a municipality with its own currency and credit able to sustain a local economy.
This direct control over market forces has given the SEA autonomy in problem-solving and management of resources. Internally to the SEA, the social economy network is now made up of 120 firms and nonprofits utilizing the alternative currency and credit system. Importantly for food, the SEA founded the Urban Agriculture Network Basel Association (UAB) in 2010 to “move the city of Basel toward a food policy on ‘food sovereignty’ as opposed to ‘food security.’ ”
This has led to over forty projects in the food system, from CSAs, to co-ops, to the creation of over five thousand garden plots, all working in tandem to produce a parallel structure for the food system.
These examples, plus the many other struggles to build alternative food systems, demonstrate the ability to move away from our current absurdity. We can bring production imperatives and technological innovation in agriculture in line with a logic of feeding people instead of profit. By doing so, we can correct a principal reason for food waste.
Hunger is not an inevitability; it is a choice. We can choose to end it.