Thinking and Handling Food Waste: notes and impressions on the Food Matters Symposium at West Ide Farm

By  Charlie Spring

The term ‘symposium’ has perhaps been dried of its historical drenching in the conviviality of shared food and drink, interwoven with the discussions that we tend to associate with the symposia of modernity. As a number of us anticipated the RGS annual conference to follow, with its welter of words and notes and snatched, pre-packaged, uniform lunches, our day at West Town Farm proved, for me at least, a vital and calming yet utterly invigorating prelude to the conference work. Food (and the systemic wasting thereof) was the theme and the context. The first words I heard upon leaving the minibus were an invitation to make a cuppa in the barn, that symbol of hospitality that is as British as talking about the weather. Into the tea-from-afar I stirred milk from Ashclyst Farm Dairy down the road, who in a context of fervent strife over milk pricing in the UK and EU independently provide organic milk at £1/litre.


Greetings over tea and hay bales were followed by provocations from Henry Buller, which swiftly and succinctly laid out multiple aspects of waste worthy of our attention: the consumer waste as households discard edible food in the fallout of everyday life and supermarket sales; systematic waste as inherent to industrial production and manufacturing alongside growing demands of waste-heavy meat production; paradoxical waste of overproduction and surplus to maintain commodity values- butter mountains amidst unbuttered bellies; marketeers’ insistence on our psychological need for abundantly overstocked shelves while unprofitable farmed animal lives are crushed in huge quantities; the metabolic waste evident in the stuffed girths of our us, the “physical and medical embodiments of nutritional excess” as we pee out most of the B vitamins of our beloved bananas. Fundamentally he called us to attend to waste as a driving force of capitalism, echoing analyses such as Zsusza Gille’s insistence that value circulation is interdependent with waste circulation. Henry called to mind Michael Taussig’s notion of mimetic excess, a way of thinking through the dull blindnesses of our commodified relationship with food: the meat on a shelf that prevents us from any engagement with that animal’s life, but also a way to think about the visceralities of food and its production that our day at the farm allowed us to see, smell, feel…and talk about! He also reminded us of Don Delillo’s hypothesis that civilization is defined not by what it creates but by what it throws away.


The imagination fired, we set off in groups to explore the farm. My group was in the capable hands of Kevin Cotter of Love Local Food whose storytelling hat was unworn but gleanable in his lyrical, humbly funny and wise way of communicating the farm as we traversed just a small but richly diverse part of it. We witnessed the symbiosis of sheep and apples in the orchard, partly a response to High-Level Stewardship requirements for a ‘properly Devon’ landscape and partly just good sense as sheep keep down the grass (woe betide the wayward sheep who mounts the tree fence to eat tree and not grass!). Economic histories of grubbing and reinstating (“non-sense”) are interwoven with ongoing human relationships to enable the apples to be taken away and turned into juice and cider, which then returns. We crossed fences and boundaries to enter other zones- the old Teign Valley railway tunnelled into what is now a cool, lush wilderness for badgers and bats. Underfoot squelched red mud and around and above us were ferns, mosses, birch, holly and stick piles (whose rotting wood fuels the insects who fuel the bats). Kevin called it ‘enrichment from the bottom up’, in resilience and diversity rather than the maximisation of immediate profit (the farm’s soil, for example, has grown in depth and structure since the conversion to organic methods).

Kevin rounded off his tour with a peek at the community garden, the intimate scale, where volunteers arrive twice weekly to garden and make communal soup- many are people at the edges: those with mental health and other life challenges- including, Kevin wryly noted, those who spend too much time at computers (inner nod: this past summer for me has been more powerpoint than permaculture).


During the panel session ‘Knowing Food in Practice’, we hear from farmer Andy Bragg about links between national policy and the intimate- and often emotional- experience of livestock farming, our “out of kilter” social structures and values, the policy changes and corporate consolidations that have led to a sense that “we’re governed by these wills”. He gave a plea for academics to do good research and communicate it with bravery. Increased regulation such as tracing livestock in the export system can increase trust and reduce waste, but he reminded us that much food is still artificially cheap, so we devalue and waste it, if our value relationship with food is based on pennies alone.

The affordability of food question linked us to the explicit focus on food poverty from Kim Chenoweth, who described the burgeoning landscape of food charity in the southwest and expressed the bind so many charitable providers are faced with: the wealth of industry surplus combined with the levels of need in a no/low-wage economy driving the need for services like hers, alongside her sadness at having to do such work.

Martyn Bragg of Shillingford Organics described the irony of the way small-scale farming and distribution produces less waste, yet at higher sale prices than industrial production can achieve. The human relationships described by Kevin help deliver closed-loop approaches to waste: small carrots from Shillingford go to the kitchens staffed by Kim, Real Food Store’s waste can be transformed into meals at their restaurant, and kitchen waste returns to the farm as compost. Veg boxes allow for the distribution of gluts and the enlisting of clients in cycles of seasonality and weather-dependent variations.

Discussion followed: questions arose on the heritability of farms and access to land- how the Farm Business Tenancy Act and subsidies have allowed big farmers to expand even further, the time taken by farmers to write bids and handle bureaucratic demands, how to balance the affordability of food with environmentally-responsible production and distribution systems, how to think politically on a local level if Westminster won’t listen, how governance structures affect local food networks in North Wales and the role of municipal domestic waste collections. How the experiences of Devon can spread and engage with diverse other places.


Lunch was prepared in groups- my group had chosen the ‘unfashionable meat’ theme, some out of an explicit self-challenge given their vegetarianism or aversion to the bloodiness of butchery. Offal puns abounded, aprons requested and a hesitant huddle around that carnal site, the flaming barbecue. Sian deals with meat sales for the farm and explained some of the issues with selling offal and other unfashionable cuts such as the pork neck that she assured us she’d stuffed and slow-roasted for us. We’d mentioned the way pet food and burger manufacturing provide outlets for ‘waste’ parts of the animal- the less-valuable ‘fifth quarter’ that Andy ‘gives’ to the abattoir. The farm loses organic status for their cut meats because the closest abattoir cannot provide the necessary separate processing facilities but they prefer to use the closest so as to minimise stress for the animals in transit to slaughter-in addition to welfare concerns, stressed animals means less-tasty meat. Unflinching and experienced, Sian heaved various sealed bags onto the table and cut them open to lift out the dripping organs: cow’s heart and liver, lamb heart and kidneys and pig liver. They were plonked onto white cutting boards and we were invited to get stuck in- there was no shortage of willing meat cutters but I found myself relieved to be the note-taker: I had an unexpected surge of gut nausea as I watched Jeremy slice the lump of purplish, jellyfish flesh. There were options for the more squeamish to slice sage for flavouring the meat, emitting scents that comingled with the charcoal smoke and faint smell of blood. It didn’t smell bad here in the barn (I was anticipating the repeat of an unpleasant kidney dissection at school), though Sian mentioned her teenage work at a supermarket meat counter, where the punishment for turning up hungover was to cut up liver.

Close up the parts looked mottled or iridescent, perforated with holes that hinted at their former functionality and connectedness to other, unseen animal parts. The cutters spoke the sensations: cold, jellylike, fishlike. Henry remembered how as a boy he’d conducted experiments with tubes and hearts to test the pump function. Eifiona shook liberal amounts of cumin into the bowl of flour and sage into which the meat was tipped and coated…and deftly cleared away the blood-sluiced boards as we turned our attention to the hearth- the meat curled and browned on the hot rack above the coals and I joined Junfan Lin in turning the pieces, now barely recognisable to me as belonging to this organ or that- the smells were strong as I pondered the thousands of chemical changes going on within each piece as it turned to the cooked, the domesticated, the edible.

Over lunch I asked my fellow participants about their thoughts about the day: for many, this stemmed from a bridging of the sociability and emplaced, embodied activities enabled by the day’s organisation (and memories of childhood attachments to lands near and far) with wider questions of food justice and agricultural sustainability. Laura felt that food waste is an “unresolved issue” and it felt necessary to bring such diverse backgrounds and approaches to consider it, while Elspeth felt the lush richness of the farm to be a place to consider her rural childhood and the lives destroyed here and in Australia by drought and agricultural disease, and to build networks in the ways we deal with these past and future questions.


Megan Blake preluded her talk with an activist’s urge to do work that actually changes things for people. She spoke of the assumptions of productivist science and policymaking- predicated on a futurist neatness and invoked Jevons Paradox to challenge the assumption that we’d waste less if food were more expensive, when the history of food systems tells us that making food systems more efficient doesn’t necessarily result in reduced overall impacts- in fact the impacts are often just downstreamed, and therein lie issues of power and inequality. She spoke of current efforts by industrial players to redistribute surplus food- so long as it doesn’t harm profits- in a world where food is a mechanism of profit, not the commensality and pleasure we’d just experienced over lunch. She pointed to the way the assignation and placement of waste produces and reproduces social divisions and requires work and relationships to ‘remake’ it as food, food reordered beyond commercial values. She exemplified this by describing the work of the Real Junk Food Café in Sheffield, one of a network of café projects intercepting waste food and cooking it into meals to challenge the idea that surplus should be wasted, to widen participation in the food economy through a pay-as-you-feel mechanism and thus to draw more people into shared eating experiences. She described the challenges they face in doing so, including the way food deemed ‘surplus’ can devalue eaters despite attempts to level differentiation, the uneven and sometimes unhealthy supplies of food available and, crucially, the project’s paradoxical reproduction and reliance on the category of ‘surplus’ even as it attempts to diminish it.

Matt Reed [see earlier post for talk transcript] gave an intriguing insight from his interviews with ‘conventional’ farmers, who described organic farmers as ‘wasters’- wasters for forsaking the opportunity to maximise productivity, while an alternative framing spies the excess of intensive farming with its fossil fuel inputs and hunger for new tranches of land. He guided us to focus on how business models might create change; farming as a value-configuring political activity, essentially. He described the problems inherent with scaling up organic agriculture and its embeddedness within capitalist economics subject to recessions and consumers’ capacities, but called us to attend to analyses of the profound political-economic changes underway such as those of Manuel Castells and Paul Mason. Do these new formations allow us to rethink food production- from involving eaters in urban growing to considering the needs of growing populations relying on free food? “How do we build business models around that?” he asked.

Emma Roe gave a fascinating ‘behind-the-curtain’ insight into the workings of the meat industry and the variegated values of different parts of the carcass, asking about the global distribution of these parts and asked us to consider the connections between one’s eating body and those of the dispersed beings eating the dispersed parts of the same carcass. WRAP research suggests that waste meat arisings are higher than those of other food sectors and its recommendations to find ever-new markets for the absorption of those products- a sense that the global scope of food distribution might mitigate waste, even as this provides new routes for capitalism’s spread. Questions of modifying consumer preference and improving anthropological understanding for the expansion of food commodification was juxtaposed with ethical questions of who gets to eat what- in the case of reconstituted meat products, why is it that people on low incomes should only be able to afford less desirable parts of an animal (regardless of how unidentifiable to the eater is a Turkey Twizzler or horse-bulked burger). Her contribution led to considerations of the moral economy of meat and compromised virtue, the difference between cooking and having a corporation factory ‘do the cooking’, and marketing as ‘applied social science’- I thought here seriously about the way our own analyses of the ways people eat might be (mis)used for commercial purposes.

Matt led us neatly into the small group discussion stage by asking whether ‘waste’ is a heuristically useful concept, especially given its generative capacities (again, O’Brien’s book is a useful exemplar of humans ingenuity in transforming ‘waste’ into useable products). Should we refer to waste as ‘underused resource’?


We discussed the equity issues engendered by the proliferation of food banking. Julie raised an interesting point about the ‘local’ implications of new forms of surplus redistribution, suggesting that FareShare’s Exeter supermarket collections do not go to Exeter folk but travel to Bristol and other FareShare ‘hubs’, raising the question of regional distribution of need and aid provision. She mentioned negative reactions to recent French legislation against supermarket food waste, which might obscure food business’ pre-existing relationships with local organisations that could be threatened by imposed formalisation. She asked what happens to the people relying on food aid if efforts to drastically reduce food surplus succeed? We spoke of the shame, the stigma and differentiation represented by the food bank, but again the variations of volunteers and spaces therein.

Such questions of proximity and distance underpinned the larger group feedback session. A key point to emerge was that of ‘many solutions’- and convergence: while our discussions of the ethics of foodbanking hinge on the indignity and denial of agency of accepting food parcels, perhaps we need to challenge the discourse of ever-expanding choice, shopping for which marks us as grown-up individuals: but should we rely on the idea of consumers making choices as the driver for what will lead to a better food system? As ever, more questions were raised than solutions proffered, and the question of whether we should interrogate the utility of surplus v waste remains…


Elspeth Probyn summarised for us her thoughts on the day’s activities and discussions. She argued for the necessity of complexity- that simple coding of the world removes the “obligation to learn more” [food for thought in our desire to tame the messy waste/surplus/excess/resource categories]. She highlighted the role of social ‘science’ in making and communicating stories in narrative networks that link multiple contexts of food production and consumption and their material practices. She mentioned the severing of metabolic intimacies with non-humans in the loss of herds and the ways of eating animals and this brought me back to Taussig’s ‘mimetic excess’- what is it about the conditions of today that prevent us from seeing and acting in accordance with the behaviours and patterns of the non-human world? Finally, she recognised our indebtedness to this magical place where we’d drunken ale (and paid as we felt), trodden the soil, soaked up the sun and been very much cared for. She acknowledged the symposium as a place of shared experience as well as listening and participation, thanking Andy and Martyn for joining in for the whole day. They in turn expressed their gladness at having realised that useful questions are indeed being asked by academics (phew) while acknowledging that despite the good listening and sharing of values we haven’t quite got past seeing the problems to seeing the solutions- yet.

So, in conclusion of an unresolved discussion (which bled into the sea of discussions at the main RGS conference), I mention merely the beautiful willow tree made by Deggie, constructed in three layers of looping willow to hold leaves upon which we wrote our intentions and resolutions in willow charcoal made at the farm. The crumbling and chipping of my piece reminded me of the fragility and potential of the connections inhering within this act and the act of writing more widely: what happens to what we commit to word, voiced and written- and how do we deal with the responsibilities and implications of writing others’ worlds? After wolfing down delicious wood-fired pizza (time is always short for the important things), the tree was dismantled and crammed into the minibus to be carried onto the campus, banner-like, into the foyer so that the messages of the farm might reach unknown passers-by. Plucked into a new context by the creativity of one and the participation of many, it felt good to be see it there as I pinballed between powerpoints…

Henry Buller ProvocationsKevin Tour -exploring the farm edgesFM -Offal cookingGroup discussionsThought Tree


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