Over the last couple of years, the debate about the global food waste scandal has exploded. While still a large part of the world’s population is chronically undernourished, one third of all food is produced for the trash can.

Decades of policy efforts aiming to ensure we enjoy ‘food security’ have resulted in more food, for sure. At the same time, however, the food security regime has produced an unprecedented amount of food waste. Staple foods, vegetables and animal products that need land, water, natural resources and labour to produce never reach the consumer.

Starting from around 2009, the debate about this global food waste scandal started to gain momentum. Stirred up by activists like Tristram Stuart, who decided to organise large public events called ‘Feeding the 5000’ aimed at raising awareness about food waste by feeding large amounts of people (more than 5000) with food that would otherwise have gone to waste, and the Slow Food Youth Network, an international network of food activists that has organised so-called ‘Disco Soup’ events (live deejaying while participants cut and cook vegetables that would have otherwise gone to waste) in hundreds of cities around the world, from Berlin to Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Seoul, Sydney, New York and Nairobi. These kinds of events caught the attention of governments and policy makers at national and international level and since then many more initiatives, alliances, campaigns and ‘platforms’ for tackling food waste have been launched.

The outcome of over consumption

Whilst all of these initiatives have good intentions, the chances of making a notable difference, let alone ‘tackling’ the issue of food waste, amount to zero. Food waste is not so much an unintended side-effect of food production, but the expected and natural outcome of over-production in the food system. We will not achieve less food waste if we continue to produce food the way most industrialised countries do today.

The reason for this is straightforward. The food system that was created after World War II was designed to meet one objective and one objective only: to produce as many calories as possible for the lowest feasible price. Industrialisation, mechanisation, and Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy are designed to meet this objective. Policymakers, businesses, and especially farmers that are caught up in this system have only one button to push: producing more food.

Clearly, this over-producing, wasteful system is broken. Whilst business, governments, and farmers’ organisations have been advocating the productionist paradigm by pointing out the need for ‘food security’ (meaning that every person must have access to nutritious food), the limits and failures of this approach are becoming increasingly clear – in fact, decades of policy aimed at food security have not created a food secure world. Where to go from here? Well, food for thought seems to be coming from an unexpected direction.

As a reaction to the productionist paradigm, grassroots social movements have introduced a new concept: that of ‘food sovereignty’. The abridged version of food sovereignty is, as Berkeley scholar Raj Patel notes, the “right of peoples to define their own food, agriculture, livestock and fisheries systems”.

Although the concept of food sovereignty is still being developed, the movement and the concept are clearly broadening and leaving their ‘alternative’ mark on the debate on the future of food. The call for more locally oriented food systems has echoed in policy debates around Europe.

Two possible pathways

Future food scenarios roughly define two possible pathways in which future food systems can develop: the ‘high-tech scenario’, in which multinational companies will play an even bigger role in the food system, using efficient and high-tech systems to produce and procure our food; and the ‘self-organisation scenario’, in which more locally (regionally) organised communities take responsibility for their food procurement.

Until a few months ago, I would have bet my money on the first scenario. Technological development is accelerating, and with talks about ever more open food markets and TTIP on the way, the scenario of ‘self-organisation’ and food sovereignty seemed unrealistic, even romantic. The election of Donald Trump and the rise of populism in Europe has reset the deck.

In order for the high-tech, productionist paradigm to thrive, open markets, neo-liberalism and trade agreements are a necessity. However, building walls and “America First” turn the food economy on its head. I myself have felt uneasy about the apparent resemblances between the rhetoric of the ‘go-local food movement’ I feel close to and the blatant nationalism and protectionist rhetoric of the new president of the United States and his European populist counterparts. What is the difference between “America First and support American workers” and “buy Dutch cheese in order to support your local farmer”?

Of course, the differences are greater than the resemblances: striving for food sovereignty is about more, rather than less, democracy. Still, part of the underlying sentiment is more closely connected than progressive food movement enthusiasts would like to believe. Both farmers and workers voting for populist parties can be considered the ‘losers’ of the globalised market economy. Only time will tell what the breakdown of neo-liberalism unfolding before our very eyes will mean for our food system. Locally organised, short-chain, farmer-consumer cooperative models of food production and consumption could start to flourish as a response to the breaking down of free trade agreements. As a result, it might turn out that Donald Trump will play a big role in “tackling the global food waste scandal”.

Illustration ©Bidu