“Seeing comes before words” as the late storyteller John Berger once wrote.
With over half of our brain’s surface area devoted to processing visual information, we humans respond intuitively to powerful images. And it is this evolutionary hardwiring that I try to exploit through my photography-based food waste activism.
Food Waste in Denmark
It’s just past noon on a winter’s day in Denmark meaning that there is now finally enough natural light entering my fourth-floor apartment for me to get to work photographing last night’s dumpster-dived Urban Harvest.
Laying out kilograms upon kilograms of perfectly edible food on my living room floor is more time-consuming that you might think, but it is these laborious art displays that stir people to express their shock horror via social media networks.
Urban Harvesting is hugely popular in Denmark, and, no wonder, the country’s 2,700 supermarkets jettison 163 million kilograms of food every year – 23% of the nation’s total food waste – which equates to 391 million meals. One kilogram of food is the equivalent of 2.4 meals. Reframing food waste is critical if we are to comprehend the full scale of this issue, which is why I use human-scale terms like kilograms, not tonnes. Unlike their British counterparts, which officially declare 277 million kilograms of annual wasted food, Danish supermarkets at least have the decency of making the vast majority of their dumpsters accessible to the public.
So, once stores have closed for the day, I collect my equipment – a 90-litre backpack, a pair of gloves, two headlamps, and a smartphone – and cycle to my three local supermarket dumpsters to document and harvest a fraction of the daily food waste tsunami, ranging from 153 kilograms of dairy cream to 800 eggs, 157 packets of bacon or 180 bags of coffee. Fresh produce, like Chilean blueberries for example, is often flown thousands of miles to end up in the trash.
The Modern Supermarket
After exposing supermarkets’ dirty secrets for over two years in one of the world’s “most sustainable” cities, Copenhagen, it is clear that the political elite and their associated organisations have allocated too many resources to highlighting citizens’ discarded comestibles and too little time to tackling the businesses which have a disproportionate impact on the entire food system’s food loss and food waste: the modern supermarket.
My investigations have revealed that supermarket food waste is embedded into their business model. Companies are keeping the prices on soon-to-be-expired food products too high, for too long, in relation to their legal “expiry” dates. Put simply, they are hoarding because they can afford to, as the financial penalties for dumping this still edible but overpriced food in the trash are not fit for purpose. The ever-worsening climate and biodiversity crises mean we must solve this issue as soon as possible.
Food Waste’s Solutions
Food banks are often seen as the solution, yet in 2020, Denmark’s network only saved 1.4 million kilograms of supermarket “waste” from the dumpster, i.e. 0.8% of supermarkets’ annual total. The six internationally acclaimed WeFood social supermarkets fared even worse, selling only 358,000 kilograms of the “waste” inherited from their commercial counterparts, a meagre 0.2%.
Mobile apps like Denmark’s Too Good To Go – now worth £332 million – are hailed as giving consumers the chance to “save the planet” by buying discounted produce in so-called Magic Bags. In reality, supermarket bosses impose a daily cap of five bags per store; the 77% discount and commission on goods sold through the app is seemingly too tough to swallow. So around the back, the dumpsters are still full.
To me, the best way to fight this abuse of market power would be a significant food waste tax to compel supermarkets to mark down expiring food products much earlier, and to a price point which convinces customers to buy them.
By etching these food waste photographs deep into people’s minds, my hope is that Urban Harvesters across the west can disrupt supermarkets’ business models, so that, in time, we can transition to a fairer and more sustainable food system based on agro-ecological principles.
An earlier version of this piece ran in Wicked Leeks, a magazine on sustainable food and ethical business, published by Riverford Organic Farmers.