“The works of the roots of the vines, of the trees, must be destroyed to keep up the price and this is the saddest, bitterest thing of all. Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground. The people came for miles to take the fruit, but this could not be.
“How would they buy oranges at twenty cents a dozen if they could drive out and pick them up? And men with hoses squirt kerosene on the oranges, and they are angry at the crime, angry at the people who have come to take the fruit.
“And the smell of rot fills the country.”
John Steinbeck wrote the Grapes of Wrath, an indictment of the appalling treatment poor people faced during the Depression, in 1939. Similar crimes continue today.
The coronavirus crisis got underway with politicians bemoaning panic buying in supermarkets and tabloids warning of food shortages. Now food is being deliberately destroyed—in huge amounts.
One US chicken processor described smashing 750,000 unhatched eggs every week. US farmers are dumping 14 million litres of milk every day. In Britain, around five million litres a week are at risk of being wasted.
It’s not that people don’t need or want milk, vegetables and meat. It’s that it can’t be profitably sold
Farmers across the world are ploughing vegetables back into the ground. The cost of picking and packing them would be higher than what they’d expect to get back—and there aren’t the facilities to store produce.
Meanwhile the coronavirus crisis will double the number of people suffering severe food shortages, according to the United Nations.
It estimated that around 265 million people will face acute food insecurity by the end of this year.
This is the utter irrationality of food production under capitalism. It’s not that people don’t need or want milk, vegetables and meat. It’s that it can’t be profitably sold.
The virus and the lockdowns have had some direct effects on the food industry.
For instance, roughly half the food grown in the US usually goes to restaurants, schools, stadiums, theme parks and cruise ships. And a drop in exports to China has had a knock on effect across the globe.
But the cause of food waste goes much deeper. Before the crisis hit, a third of food grown globally wasn’t being eaten.
In October last year, Scotland’s milk surplus was set to surpass 200 million litres in 2019-20. The surplus has more than doubled over the last five years.
Industry spokespeople in the US reassure us that there are hundreds of millions of pounds of meat in cold storage.
If wasted food were a country, it would be the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the US.
Food waste isn’t about individual shoppers buying too much and chucking it in the bin. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimated that 60 percent of food waste in Europe takes place before it gets near consumers.
Waste and overproduction are built into the system because it is based on competition.
Let’s assume that a set of schools in a given area consume 100,000 litres of milk a month. If there are four dairy suppliers, they will not get together and plan to produce 25,000 litres each.
Instead, each will want to supply all of it in order to grab the maximum profit. So they will produce more than is needed. This tendency to overproduction is everywhere under capitalism because of the constant pressure on bosses to compete and boost profits.
Bosses and governments hoard food to control prices
Capitalism also works to concentrate power in a smaller number of hands.
Companies that compete successfully swallow up smaller ones. This is why, for instance, the average farm size has gone up while the number of farms has dropped.
And it’s why the food industry is now dominated by a handful of obscenely rich agribusinesses such as Cargill, Nestle and PepsiCo.
These firms are driven by profit, not by planning food production and distribution to meet need. Instead, food is a commodity to be bought and sold in a vast global market.
This and the inequalities of the system distort food production in a myriad of ways.
Countries in debt can become trapped into agreements to produce certain goods over others, regardless of whether this meets people’s needs.
Across Africa, pressure to pay interest on debts has strengthened a trend to focus resources on producing crops for export, not domestic consumption.
This generates a bigger return. But it means countries with malnourished people export food. The stranglehold of supermarkets on the food industry drives up waste (see below). And bosses and governments hoard food to control prices.
Two years ago, the Politico website was wringing its hands over Europe’s “hidden milk lake”. The concern wasn’t with milk being hoarded while millions starve. It was that the surplus could threaten profits.
Whether people get enough to eat doesn’t simply depend on what is produced. It’s about whether those at the top will make it available and whether you have money to buy it.
And the cost of food is skewed by other people looking to make profit.
The vast gambling den that is the financial market wreaks havoc with the food industry. Speculators gambling on “futures” prices of food commodities can drive up the value—a disaster for people who can no longer afford it.
During the 2007-08 financial crash, spring wheat prices as measured on US markets rose by 25 percent in just one day. The volume of agricultural futures and options—mechanisms for speculation—grew by nearly a third between 2006 and 2007.
Investors saw food as a “safer” commodity to invest in. And while their actions helped send food prices soaring, more people starved.
At the time the FAO pointed out that there was, on average, 15 percent more food available per person than there had been 20 years previously. And this was despite the global population rising by 1.8 billion people.
This time around, speculators have again rushed to see if there’s a chance to make a quick buck out of the crisis.
So dairy futures are down. But frozen concentrate orange juice futures soared by 25 percent in one month.
Sustainable food production is impossible as long as the priority is profit
While millions go hungry, the system pushes others to consume more than they need. None of this is about what is best for ordinary people, but about what’s best for profits.
The milk and food that’s currently being destroyed could be used to feed the 820 million people chronically undernourished across the world.
The vegetables being ploughed back into the soil could be harvested and distributed.
But getting this kind of shift will take a big battle. A socialist society, based on collective, democratic planning, would have no concern with what makes profit for a few fat cats. It could develop genuinely sustainable food production that made sure no one goes hungry.
Sustainable food production is impossible as long as the priority is profit. And states are loathe to “interfere” with the market to make sure people get food. We can’t rely on them to challenge the big business interests that they represent.
If this chaotic and irrational system continues, people will starve while food is wasted on an industrial scale.
As Steinbeck wrote, “Children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificate—died of malnutrition—because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.
“There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation.”
Too much food—but not enough to eat
One in nine people worldwide don’t have enough to eat, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. Its annual food security report last year said that over 820 million people are undernourished.
For decades the number of undernourished people across the world was falling. But since 2015 numbers have been rising.
The report said, “The situation is most alarming in Africa where [prevalence of undernourishment] shows slight but steady increases in almost all subregions.”
Rates of undernourishment had also risen in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The report warned that “9.2 percent of the world population (or slightly more than 700 million people) were exposed to severe levels of food insecurity in 2018”.
Supermakets of shame
A 2018 report from the Feedback group blasted the “systemic role that supermarkets play in the overproduction and waste of food” on British farms.
It said, “Food waste represents an ecological catastrophe of staggering proportions.
“Food waste begins at the first stage in the supply chain—on the farm.”
It explained how supermarket business practices produce huge amounts of waste.
“Trading practices, including order cancellations, last minute changes to forecasts, retrospective changes to supply agreements and the use of cosmetic specifications to reject produce, all cause food to be wasted,” it said.
“Produce rejected for cosmetic reasons, such as being the wrong shape, size or colour, was the biggest reason for food waste identified by farmers in this research.
“Supermarket contract practices were also identified as a major cause of waste.
“Due to natural uncontrollable factors like weather and pests, farmers cannot control the final quantities they produce.
“To avoid risking the loss of contracts, farmers must meet buyers’ orders in full—to guarantee this, they must overproduce.
“The inflexibility of supermarket contracts has normalised overproduction and the resulting waste.”
£20 billion of ‘waste’ food
A report on food waste in “primary production”—or the farm stage—last year tried to estimate the scale of food waste in Britain.
The report by food waste consultant Wrap said food waste “occurs along the whole food supply chain”.
In 2015 it estimated that waste across manufacturing, retail, hospitality and food service and households “amounted to around 10 metric tonnes, with a value of more than £20 billion”.
But it said waste at the farm stage is harder to quantify “because farming is subject to the uncertainties of the natural world”.
Nonetheless, it estimated that the total amount of food surplus and waste was 3.6 million tonnes per year, or 7.2 percent of all food harvested. If all of this was sold at market values, it would be worth £1.2 billion.
Wrap estimated that of this figure, food waste made up 1.6 million tonnes per year, or 3.2 percent of all food harvested.
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