The following is based on a talk given at a Party for Socialism and Liberation public forum in San Francisco in April.
Food waste is a major problem under capitalism. Even if we went back a few hundred years, it would be impossible for most people to believe that the world could be facing a crisis of hunger and food waste at the same time. Capitalism and the racing pace of technology at the service of maximizing profits have come together to form a super-crisis of waste and destruction.
While ever-growing numbers of people in imperialist countries are facing hunger, poverty and food insecurity, those in oppressed countries are dying by the hundreds of thousands from lack of clean water and food.
In the age of neoliberalism, economic policies like NAFTA and debt restructuring forced onto poor countries by the IMF have left much of the world swept up in a cycle of poverty that continues to reap massive profits for the ruling class while destroying the lives of untold millions.
For the moment, we can use corn as an example. Corn is an abundant, readily storable and amazingly cheap basic foodstuff, and it is being wasted in an age when millions of grain eaters face starvation for lack of vegetable calories. In Mexico, where it was first grown thousands of years ago, corn has long since become not only a food source for the Mexican people but a strong part of the culture. With the signing of NAFTA in 1993, the Clinton administration embarked upon a journey meant to achieve U.S. domination of food markets to the greatest extent possible. Mexico has since become the second-largest importer of corn in the world, after Japan.
Food used for fuel
In the U.S., 40 percent of the country’s corn is used for biofuels. Now, one-sixth of the world’s corn supply is consumed by cars in the U.S. For 33 years, at the cost of $20 billion, the federal government paid subsidies to oil companies to put corn ethanol in their fuel.
With growing popular demand for environmentally friendly practices, federal agencies, oil giants and agribusiness use the euphemism of biofuels to paint a “green” veneer on their destructive practices. While it takes marginally less fuel to produce corn ethanol than the energy that comes out of it, the process really amounts to the systematic destruction of food supplies aimed at regulating market prices by burning up the surplus—the food that cannot be sold at a profit.
Corn is also an animal feed. As a result, there is a strong and direct relationship between the price of corn and the price of milk, eggs and meat.
Tim Wise, the policy research director at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute, published a report in 2012 that documented what he calls “demand shock” from the production of corn as a biofuel. It documents the billions of dollars that NAFTA “partners” in Central America pay for U.S. corn after centuries of being some of the largest corn producers.
In an interview about his report, Wise used the word “ironically” to describe the contradiction of Mexico, formerly one of the largest corn-producing countries, now importing this crop. To simply say it is ironic ignores the fact that corn production in Central America has been intentionally smothered by subsidized imports from the U.S.
Not only does controlling the food control the profits, it also plays a big hand in controlling the people. Corn is not the only food product into which free trade has sunk its teeth. The method of commodity production in the U.S. has a deep impact on global markets, particularly the poor countries it exploits.
Dominating foreign markets, destroying local agriculture
Until 2012, the U.S. spent about $20 billion per year on export subsidies to keep food prices low in foreign markets. In Haiti, liberalization of agricultural markets over a period of only 14 years (from the mid-1980s to early 1990s) resulted in a 40 percent fall in domestic rice production, while imports from the U.S. grew from 4 to 63 percent of the Haitian rice market. IMF programs in Kenya, Somalia, Malawi and other countries across Africa similarly devastated production during the same years. As a whole, Africa has suffered malnutrition, starvation and war due to economic policies imposed by global capitalism, led by the U.S. ruling class.
But why is there hunger in the richest country in the world? Aside from $20 billion spent annually on subsidies that stifle farming economies and perpetuate poverty in other countries, the U.S. has its own oppressive and wasteful policies. The Food Security Act passed in 1985 and continued in various forms since allows farmers to apply for payments of $50 per acre of land on which they do not plant crops. This subsidy is meant to regulate production of dairy, wool and mohair, wheat, feed grains, cotton, rice, peanuts, soybeans and sugar.
There has been much debate over agricultural subsidies over the last couple decades, engaging the far right to decry government handouts much like they do welfare benefits. Environmental groups protest the decimation of farmland, and more recently, stronger chemicals being used to fend off the “super-weeds” and “super-worms” that have evolved out of response to the growing production of genetically modified organisms.
Farmers and farmers’ associations have had their beef, too, for different reasons. Environmental Working Group reports: “[S]ince 1995, just 10 percent of subsidized farms—the largest and wealthiest corporate farms—have raked in 74 percent of all subsidy payments. 62 percent of farms in the United States did not collect subsidy payments.”
Food production, like most other industries in the U.S., is dominated by monopoly corporations. Family farms have been almost entirely replaced by corporations with access to more capital, more technology, more labor. Like the farmers in Mexico, Kenya, India and all over the world, U.S. farmers find themselves increasingly unable to compete with massive corporations.
The massive increase in food wastage starts right there. A recent report from the National Resources Defense Council indicates that produce may be lost not only because of natural occurrences such as weather and pests but also because the capitalist economic system produces food based on market predictions as opposed to the calorie intake needed for people to stay nourished.
If market prices are too low at the time of harvest, some crops may be left in the field because harvesting them will not cover expenses after accounting for the costs of labor and transport. Based on demand speculation, growers, especially corporate growers, may plant more crops than there is demand for in the market at current prices. Consequently, entire fields of food may be left unharvested and plowed under because it cannot be sold at a profit.
Racist immigration laws contribute to food waste in the fields. According to the NRDC report, the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association has estimated that recent labor shortages for harvesting and packing cost $140 million in crop losses—which comes out to about 25 percent of the total production value for those crops. The state of Georgia estimates $500 million in losses. Not coincidentally, in 2011 around the same time as this labor shortage started, racist legislation passed in Georgia similar to Arizona’s SB1070 “show me your papers” bill.
About 7 percent of U.S. farm fields go completely unharvested. When there is a glut in the market for a particular food commodity, that figure can rise to 50 percent. The six-year average loss of fruit and vegetable crops represented at least 97,000 acres unharvested annually. According to an estimate by Feeding America, more than 6 billion pounds of fresh produce go unharvested or unsold each year.
Wasting food that does not look perfect
Speaking of unsold food, our next stop on the food waste train is losses in processing and distribution. There is a process called “culling” in which the crop seller picks through the harvested food to take out food products that distributors will not sell as commodities because of aesthetics—overly curled cucumbers or lumpy tomatoes, carrots that are too small, and so on. The NRDC report provided a few examples:
“A large tomato-packing house reported that in mid-season it can fill a dump truck with 22,000 pounds of discarded tomatoes every 40 minutes. And a packer of citrus, stone fruit and grapes estimated that 20 to 50 percent of the produce he handles is unmarketable but perfectly edible.” There are losses also in transportation, but this has been significantly reduced due to better refrigeration as technology has advanced.
Once the food is in the store, many things contribute to waste. In addition to the previously mentioned aesthetic qualities people look for in food, such as lack of blemishes and uniform color, market research has found that people are more likely to shop from a brimming bin than a scanty stack. Because of this, the distributors order more food than they need in order to keep the bins overflowing. This practice also “ruins” the food that passed the aesthetics test from the farm by bruising and blemishing the food on the bottom of the pile.
Beyond produce, many ready-made foods like sandwiches and salads are thrown out far before their viability is compromised, and foods like rotisserie chickens may be thrown out after only a few hours on display.
It is estimated that the average supermarket discards $2,300 per store worth of food every day. Almost all of this food is still consumable but may have a limited shelf life left. In most states, it is not illegal to sell product after the sell-by date, but stores do not do so out of concern that their image of carrying fresh products will be damaged. Thus, they dispose of food two or three days before its sell-by date.
In many grocery stores or service centers with made-to-order food, it is punishable by termination for a worker to take home food that would otherwise be thrown away. When food is dumped, it is compacted or padlocked to ensure the food cannot be consumed.
All of this is going on when the attacks on basic services people need to survive in this country are the most severe since the Great Depression. The sequester is cutting $85 billion in services this year alone. This includes cuts to food programs such as WIC (Women Infants and Children), a program that provides food assistance, among other benefits, to some of the poorest, most oppressed people in this country. An estimated 750,000 people will lose access to the program.
All told, from the farm to the landfill the U.S. wastes about 40 percent of the food it produces. The decomposition of uneaten food accounts for 23 percent of all methane emissions in the United States. Of all the food that is lost at different stages from farm to fork, only 3 percent is composted.
The planet has more than enough capacity from the land itself and the people who inhabit it to feed every human being on it. Humanity has tremendous potential due to technological advances that allow us to produce in great abundance. Productive capacity has never been as great as it is today. But we are held back by the contradiction that the tiniest of minorities own most of the means of production and control it to their benefit alone.
In a capitalist society, the motive behind the production of food is not to feed people; housing is not made to give them shelter; clothing is not made to keep them warm; and health care is not offered primarily to keep people healthy. All of these things, which are and should be viewed as basic rights, are nothing other than commodities—to be bought and sold—from which to make a profit. If a profit cannot be made, usually due to overproduction in relation to the market, the commodity is considered useless by the capitalists and destroyed. So to answer the question, “Why is there hunger in the richest country in the world?” Capitalism.
What is needed to solve hunger? An economy that consciously plans to satisfy the human need for food as well as for housing, education and health care. What we need brothers and sisters, is socialism.