“Taste the Waste” is a film that was recently in theaters. It sheds light on a side of “our” capitalism that really nobody in any social class would defend. It’s about the massive throwing away, thus destruction, of food. The movie shows dramatic images that should shock the audience: delicious tomatoes are pressed at a garbage plant into disgusting mush, pointlessly wasting labor and the environment. And the filmmakers have also investigated the environmental damages that are caused by the destruction of food. The damage extends, by all accounts, into the future, as the climate is harmed not only by deforestation, but also by the methane gas released by rotting food. So we learn that the problem is huge, global, and concerns “all of us.”
The film cites numbers that have circulated for some time in the public debate. It says:
“More than half of our food ends up in the trash. In Germany alone, each year up to 20 million tons of food are thrown away – which is 500,000 trucks full. The food that we throw away in Europe could feed the hungry of the world twice over.”
The issue seems clear: Where so much is thrown away, too much is produced. But – too much for what?
Surely not too much for the appetite of the hungry people in this world. They would immediately jump at the chance, but the salvaged calories are not even offered to them.
Is perhaps too much produced for the food business? The film refutes this. It shows quite realistically how it is that food is constantly destroyed. Disposal does not happen out of carelessness or negligence. The food industry calculates with a sharp pencil when and what and how much is disposed of. The destruction of food is presented in the film as part of the commercial calculations of the food producers, as well as the chain stores and supermarkets. It’s no secret, because it is reckoned there:
Already in production, much is thrown away or not even harvested. What does not appear to correspond to E.U. regulations or does not have a form optimally suited for a box is left aside so that packaging and shipping costs are not increased. Often much of what must be transported from distant countries is already partially spoiled on arrival. Only part of the beans coming from Kenya then reach the consumer. Kenyans have yet to taste them, but they never were intended to. Sorting out commodities that have started getting moldy costs working hours and wages, so it pays to just throw away the whole crate of fruit or vegetables. And the bread shelves must be full until closing time or else the customer might turn to the competition; so they are constantly replenished and at night everything must be thrown away. And other perishable goods are not left on the shelf up until the expiration date – if a new product has already arrived at the supermarket, it pays to not put it out beside the old stuff. Etc., etc.
Food is therefore thrown away so that the one thing that it’s all about in this supposedly best of all possible economic systems results: the largest possible profit for the companies that produce or sell food. What just still represents capital value for them when they purchase it becomes worthless if it turns out that the sale to the end user doesn’t yield a profit, even if the food itself is unspoiled.
Waste happens here in fact on an enormous scale: with the disposal, the labor and natural resources that have been used in production prove to be useless, null and void. Neither the value side of the commodities nor their material side, i.e. their usefulness, come into play – unless charity organizations offer to transport the thrown away food to their cupboards.
The film illustrates this perfectly normal economic madness of market-based production, but it registers it completely differently. It is clear that it is not about crimnality or a wasteful mentality on the part of individual entrepreneurs. A type of system, and indeed a rather cynical one, should be behind the destruction. This massive waste on a global scale is a scandal, because useful commodities are destroyed and at the same time, as the movie says:
“the world’s resources [are] overused, drawing to a close and yet have to provide for more and more people ...”
The filmmakers consider this outrageous because they are also convinced that such cynicism could not actually happen in their social system, although their film shows quite clearly what goes on in the global food business. The film is therefore very discontent with the economic rationale of the corporations:
“Corporations have no interest in shrinking consumption and limiting production. Over-exploitation of nature and a throw-away mentality are their brand name and ensure business success ...”
However, only the faintest reproach occurs to them as a criticism, which is that the food business should really be in the interests of all well-meaning people and about exactly the opposite: namely, providing for people and global resource conservation. They are inspired by the idea that the food business is actually obliged to serve the material needs of humanity.
Even if the film shows that this is not so, the critics of wastefulness do not become opponents of the capitalistic logic of the business made with food. They do not want to make one-sided accusations. The last quote already indicates that the critics of waste have discovered a general “throw-away mentality” that the “corporations” share with “all of us.” In the opinion of the filmmakers, this “mentality” arises from consumption being much too easy for people and that gives them a contemptuous attitude towards food. This over-consuming should again be due to the cheapness of food:
“Why have people in the so-called ‘developed’ countries lost their appreciation for food? That may be because food is ever cheaper.”
The food producers come off here as those who, on the one hand, fulfill the irrepressible urge to consume with their cheap prices and, on the other, encourage this urge. The consumer is the commander of the whole affair, while the producing capital plays the role of henchman and accomplice.
From the film itself one could certainly learn the opposite. Food producers and supermarket chains do not cheapen prices because they want to fulfill the consumers’ desires, but because they compete for their limited purchasing power. Cheapness is a lure precisely because people do not have much to spend. This cheapness is created by the producers in their competition with each other, in that they all deploy productivity-enhancing methods in order to make profit with each cheap yogurt, by attracting the buyer who must watch every penny and taking him away from the more expensive competitor. This leads to an ever-expanding mass production which of course goes at the expense of quality – and of course at the expense of health, because this type of mass production isn’t possible without using poisons, cheap animal fodder or harmful additives, or without economizing on sanitation. And here – of all places – in the restricted money in consumers’ pockets and in the obscenities of the food industry, the filmmakers locate a great lavish special offer for the consumer: they think the customer finds an overly inexpensive abundance and this then corrupts the good manners and morals which would be so important in conserving resources for humanity. But anyone who buys cheap poor quality stuff dispenses with just such requirements in a product in order to still be able to buy a few others. This then is supposed to be the so-called prosperity that the extensive range of commodities stands for.
Very strange, what the consumer is here. Just because he buys for his sustenance the stuff that the companies set before him, because he can sometimes be attracted by a fresh-looking commodity and sometimes by low prices, he should be to blame for the wasteful use of resources, something he has nothing to do with because they are not under his control. Actually, he is only the last and most powerless link in the chain of self-expansion of the food capitals. But because he puts his money on the table and plays his role as intended, he should feel complicit in the great waste of food and its consequences for the planet.
It doesn’t help him that the critics of waste view him as only one part of a system in which his “habits and preferences” serve the problematic “business success of corporations.” He gets out of the system only when, as he learns in the film, he kindly gains a new “awareness” in relation to yogurt and hamburgers; if he plans all his purchases carefully, never buys too much, and doesn’t always buy what’s cheapest – even if the “cost of living” quickly outpaces his wages or food stamps.
The “awareness” of the food producers and sellers is unchangeable anyway and will go on as always: the main thing is that the money of the consumers goes into their coffers. With it, waste takes its course.
Translated from a Feb. 6 2012 radio broadcast by GegenStandpunkt
Ideologies about consumption and the consumer in the market economy