Reflections on the Food Matters Symposium: Systemic Food Waste, West Town Farm 1/09/15
By Louise MacAllister, University of Exeter
Arriving at West Town Farm for a symposium addressing issues of food waste, I walked into the venue in wellies, and took up a seat on a straw bale in the barn. The farm environment felt familiar to me, but catching snippets of other people’s conversations, the location for the symposium was already provoking lines of thought that would not be possible inside a more ‘standard’ venue.
The day began with some provocations from Professor Henry Buller, whose opening comments immediately highlighted the complexity of questions of food waste. Waste was framed in a variety of ways, including but not limited to; waste as a natural result of working with a biotic medium, waste as the result of unlimited consumption, waste as systemically inherent, waste that is actively produced, and metabolic waste. Waste that exists on scales from the household, to the 35 million male chicks that are seen as a waste product of the egg industry, and are therefore killed at one day old. However with these chicks mostly feeding the pet food industry, waste can again be differentially framed; waste as a commercial opportunity.
With these ‘provocations’ bouncing around in conversation we set off in groups for a farm walk. As we walked these provocations were made to feel real, complicated and entangled with everyday farming and the vital materialities of the farm. Andy Bragg who farms at West Town Farm led the walk. We stopped by a small herd of cattle which Andy spent quite some time talking about. The cattle watched us while we talked about their lives, their feed patterns, their everyday care, their breeding, their death, and the processing of their bodies. We talked about these things with the aim of reducing food waste, while simultaneously being enchanted by the cute calves, the curious heifer at the fence, and the face-pulling of the bull.
Returning to the barn these real life complexities were extended to further contexts in the panel ‘knowing food in practice’. We heard more from Andy Bragg about the pressures of farming, and how food scares and food waste are governed by the madness of food export rules. We then heard from Kim Chenoweth of the Devon and Cornwall Food Association. Kim works as a volunteer helping feed those who may well otherwise go without, and explained the reliance of the charity on ‘waste’ food such as undersized vegetables, and the questions this raises about socially-just eating. Finally, we heard from Martyn Bragg who runs a farm to consumer veg box scheme and how food costs accumulate through wasteful practices such as unnecessary packaging, here our wasteful practices can be understood as generative of costs that structure access to food.
Following the panel it was time to practically engage with waste food to make our lunch! Splitting off into three groups to work with offal, ‘misshapen’ vegetables and past-best before bakery ingredients, I joined the latter group. The main question of this session being ‘how would we know food is good to eat if we take away the best before date?’ I think this session is worthy of a bit more attention that I will give to the other parts of the day because this was where we engaged with food itself and so came to approach the topic in ways that cannot be reached through traditional methods. The food we were working with was laid out on a table, the session leader, Ken, explained it had been left over when he closed his bakery in 2012.
From the simple question of how would we know this food would be good to eat came a whole range of possible approaches to this question. Just what is ‘good to eat’ in the first place? Does it mean it has the same nutritional quality as when it was first produced? How does flour degrade? What bacteria are at work, incorporating themselves into our food, into our bodies, and into debates about food waste? Does such degradation even render it unsafe anyway? Touching the ingredients prompted further thought; what are we feeling for? What does good food feel like? Can you smell bad food? What can we do with food before it reaches our mouth to ensure it is safe to take into our bodies in the absence of a black and white date, past which the food is widely understood to have ‘become bad’ and ‘waste’.
This is not just about the food itself though, thinking about food waste through a visceral engagement with food prompts questions of social justice and access. Who has to make these decisions about food waste and safety and who is afforded what may be considered the luxury of not having to worry about food safety, with food beyond the best before date being ‘safely’ consigned to the dustbin and firmly placed in the category of waste? Can society be divided today between those who eat first and those who eat what is left in a modern day version of ‘the upper crust’?
Besides such classed questions are questions of care. Are we taking care for our own bodies when we take in food that is past a particular date? Are we taking care of the environment if we do NOT take in food that is past a particular date? What about when we care for others? I was not the only parent in the group who would eat food past a ‘best before’ date myself, but who would be far more cautious about feeding it to my children. Here food waste becomes entangled with my gendered responsibilities to care. But who receives my care and who does not when I make these decisions about food waste? And is the decision to eat and feed my children food past its ‘best before date’ a particular privilege that I am afforded, that others do not have?
We had no such decisions to make today, lunch was based on food that would otherwise have gone to waste, and if anyone was under the impression that ‘waste’ food somehow automatically tastes bad, this was dispelled by the lunch, the scones below being part of the pudding!
Lunch was of course also an opportunity to talk to fellow delegates. Sitting in our conference barn venue, back on our straw bale seats, I spoke with several people about the venue itself. The farm walk may have seemed like some kind of fun interlude, but as one delegate explained, ‘it makes it much easier to think about food waste, it makes it seem more real’. The place of the conference itself, and the materialities we were engaging with during the day, were combining to forge new ways of framing and engaging with the topic, a way forward to solutions?
After lunch we returned to an academic focus with a panel session. Dr. Megan Blake talked about food waste in relation to neo-liberalism, Dr. Matt Reed about social structures and organic farming, and Dr. Emma Roe about the food animal carcass as a vital materiality whose ethics of distribution can be framed in terms of social and cultural practices.
The day ended with ways forward. Splitting into three groups and then returning for a roundtable discussion, the group I joined began from the starting point of ‘what might a less wasteful food production utopia look like?’ This could not be easily defined, from ‘eating your landscape’, to food justice, fish based diets, in-vitro meat, and finally the close celebration of the life of an animal we may consume through the example of the parties held for the slaughter of pigs in Spain, we found utopia could not be grasped. Food, taste and consumption is at once personal and communal, and so it was that utopia was different for each of us. As the day had demonstrated, this is a complex issue that can be approached in a variety of ways. However the day had served as an excelled point from which to think about these complexities and forge connections and ideas for possible solutions. These possible solutions, thoughts and questions were captured at the end of the day not in the more standard ‘post-it note’ format, but in keeping with the day, on paper leaves, our ‘ink’ being charcoal produced on the farm.
What was perhaps most clear from today was that food waste is not something that can be addressed in a singular straightforward way. Approaching food waste and arriving at meaningful solutions demands that we take into account debates from household practices, to their social and cultural frames, to economic and political structuring. Accounting for such complexity is not a straightforward task and ways to prompt new lines of thought are vital for this. A farm-based symposium with visceral, academic, and industry engagements was a perfect approach from which to further this ongoing process from a venue that engaged and immersed us in the vitality of the world we talk about.