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The Leading Voices in Food

E191: Is today’s food waste a consequence of historical public policy?

Hosted by: Norbert Wilson (Duke), Brenna Ellison (Purdue)
December 14, 2022

Today’s podcast is part of a series on food waste. When farmers produce more of a product than people are willing to buy, or when the demand for a product falls unexpectedly, food is wasted. What role do agricultural policies and politics play in creating and perpetuating cycles of supply challenges? Our guest today is Dr. Garrett Graddy-Lovelace of American University. Garrett is an agricultural policy expert and she studies the problem of food gluts through the lens of social sciences, international affairs, history and analysis of USDA data.

Garrett Graddy-Lovelace researches and teaches agricultural policy and agrarian politics. A critical geographer, she draws upon political ecology and decolonial studies to research agricultural biodiversity conservation, agrarian cooperatives, land use decisions, and domestic and global impacts of US farm policies. This includes community-based research-action with grassroots groups on the Farm Bill (see project). Her forthcoming book, The Power of Seeds & Politics of Agricultural Biodiversity, is with M.I.T. Press. She is co-PI for a SESYNC-NSF Pursuit, entitled “Diverse Pathways to Nourishment: Understanding How Agricultural Biodiversity Enhances Food Security, Sovereignty and Nutrition” and Senior Personnel for AU’s $15M NSF RECIPES grant on Wasted Food. She was awarded the inaugural Provost Associate Professor title, the 2022 School of International Scholar-Teacher of the Year Award, and the SIS Excellence in PhD Mentoring Award. Graddy-Lovelace co-founded and co-leads School of International Service’s Ethnographies of Empire Research Cluster, and the nation-wide Agroecology Research-Action Collective. She is a Faculty Affiliate for AU’s Antiracist Research & Policy Center and Associate Director for the new Center for Environment, Community & Equity. Additionally, she works on and for open knowledge and Indigenous data sovereignty.

Interview Summary

This podcast is co-sponsored by the Recipes Food Waste Research Network led by American University and funded by the National Science Foundation.

Norbert: Garrett, from your perspective, why do you think a historical policy analysis is useful in discussions of contemporary issues of food waste and loss?

It’s a crucial question. The current situation of wasted food is uniquely contemporary and it’s unprecedented, but its root causes have long roots. On one hand, there’s a complicated but telling geography kind of spatial aspect to the wasted food fiasco we’re in. We have vast global supply chains with pinch points of precarity. There are so few processors to butcher and process such vast quantities of meat. So few mega ports for all of these millions of shipping containers. So few companies owning all these markets and so few grain storage facilities for these mountains of corn and soy. So it’s a spatial situation. But, it is also a historical situation. There are conditions and incentives driving commodity crop production and overproduction right now that have deep roots in US history, in global history, even in colonial history. So historical perspectives are crucial to help tell the why and the how. The current situation in configuration might seem natural or inevitable, but unpacking how we got here helps us understand, dismantle and reconfigure the policies, political economies and paradigms that got us in to this mess.

Brenna: Those are really interesting perspectives, Garrett, and I’m looking forward to hearing more. So since we are on the topic of policy now, how do you think Ag policy and particularly the Farm Bill has shaped or created food waste?

Good question. So the broader World Trade Organization began in the mid ’90s and it’s an extension of the general agreement on tariffs and trades, which was the Bretton Woods’s Post World War II, World War I set of international governance paradigms. It really liberalized agricultural trade and arguably neoliberalized it. And so it set in motion a whole situation that we’re in now which deregulated national and federal government policies around supply coordination, supply management. So from the mid ’90s on, you’ve got a set of policies around the world that really opened up trade. But, it also opened up the incentives to compete with each other around the world. So farmers were competing with each other in this arguably race to the bottom of farm gate prices, which incentivized cycles of overproduction that we’re in now. The policy shifts that happened domestically, and all of these countries around the world, emerged from the paradigms of the mid ’90s. The WTO and the broader focused on moving enormous quantities of commodity crops around the world in a comparative advantage model. But it ended up creating enormous quantities of food circulating around the world that then is very conducive to supply chain gluts and to pinch points where there are blocks and a precarity that we’re in now.

Norbert: Thank you for that. I would love for you to point out one particular historical policy that you think is critical for us to understand this.

The elimination of export subsidies was crucial and many of the intentions behind what ended up becoming the WTO were actually about decreasing dumping. So the anti-dumping measures are so crucial as a broader paradigm and a governance goal. But as you know better than others as Ag economists, the loopholes allowed for some countries like the US to continue overproducing a certain commodity crop and then offshoring it through complicated ways that were not explicit subsidization of exports. So the ending of export subsidies is a universal good, but it did not end the broader problem. And obviously, this is a exceptionally complicated topic, but the broader question of policy needs to be contextualized within political economy. So there’s a set of political economies at work that we’re in now, which gives inordinate power to private industry in terms of input suppliers and in terms of commodity crop purchasers. As a result, the situation we’re in now is that you have a handful of firms who are price setters and they can really decide the price of inputs and the farm gate price of various commodity crops. And the broader configuration is that farmers are squeezed around the world with expectations and incentives of expensive input purchases, annually purchased inputs, and then farm gate prices that don’t cover the cost of the production. So that’s a political economic situation. The question is what’s the role of policy? I think what’s interesting for me and for Norbert and for others in our research team is that there’s a long history of policies, governmental policies particularly in the United States, that have attempted to protect farmers from this squeeze. This treadmill of buying more inputs and trying to sell more and growing more to cover the cost of what they’ve invested in that particular season. And, it lends itself to overproduction unless there’s a way to mitigate that kind of treadmill cycle of overproduction. So, the policies that we’re interested in began in the 1920s and the 1930s which we’ll talk about with the Agricultural Adjustment Act. They really were ended in the WTO in a convoluted way in the attempt to end trade distortions. There was a way in which the corporate interests or the private firms gained even more power and say in the broader trade and agricultural economics and practices around the world. I think the WTO is so fascinating because the intentions behind it are truly important. And many of the measures like the anti-dumping and the ending of subsidized, explicitly subsidized exports which are so deleterious, so destructive to local farm economies around the world were mitigated, but the loopholes have grown. And actually the disparity between kind of corporate interests and the private firms and farmers themselves, small and medium-sized farmers has grown even more egregious. So, the role of policy in that I think is what we’re analyzing today.

Norbert: Garrett, you’ve done archival work looking at agricultural policy from the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the original Farm Bill legislation from 1933. What has inspired you to see food waste and loss as a critical issue?

It’s a great question. The Farm Bill in its current iteration enables and exacerbates wasted food. But it would be, I think, reductive to say it causes it and stop the analysis there. So, this kind of takes some historical analysis. We’re going to go back to the archives, but before we do, we kind of think about the 20th century. Over the course of the 20th century, the Farm Bill has become a behemoth mechanism for disposing of surplus commodity crop production. So if you think about Title I, Commodity, and Title II, Conservation, those actually have at their origin – the beating heart of the Farm Bill – an attempt to prevent another great depression economically, that’s a commodity title, and another Dust Bowl. That is the environmental impacts of overproduction, Title II, conservation. So there was a supply management coordination attempt to end overproduction and end the price fallout of overproduction woven into the heart of Title I and Title II. Once you get to Title III which is Trade, and you go back to the archives, the justification for Title III was move this surplus. We’ve got to get rid of this growing pile of surplus. The Commodity Crop Corporation, the broader CCC arm of the government is trying to mitigate overproduction by buying the surplus and getting it off the backs of the farmers. But then it had a huge kind of glut. So trade was a matter of offshoring and offsetting the food aid and the food trade in the 1950s and the 1960s. And then frankly, Title IV nutrition, which has all of these noble crucial intentions of feeding the people actually is a surplus disposal mechanism as well when you look back at the archives. And even Title IX which is Energy, has a surplus disposal mechanism of corn in moving it into bioethanol. So the Farm Bill has kind of hidden overproduction through these surplus disposal mechanisms and not been able to prevent it. And then of course, we get into where we are now where why doesn’t the research title fund investigations into wasted food interventions? Why aren’t there discussion of composting systems or ecological biodigesters to divert methane from landfills in the research title? So right now, it’s more what the Farm Bill doesn’t do. It doesn’t curtail excessive monopolies in the agrifood sector. It ends up subsidizing them. It doesn’t provide nearly enough for regional adaptive supply chains or markets which are much more adaptive to shocks in the system like Ukraine or climate change. So the Farm Bill doesn’t do what it needs to do, but it’s not the root cause of wasted food.

Brenna: Those are really interesting points that I think many of us at least from an agricultural economist perspective don’t necessarily talk about in that way. One thing I wanted to follow up is you mentioned the current Farm Bill doesn’t really do much to address food waste. I think the most recent Farm Bill did establish the food waste and loss liaison to try to kickstart some food waste reduction initiatives. So I’m curious just to get your thoughts, would you say that that effort is not nearly enough?

Yes, it’s such a good question. So the Miscellaneous Title is the best thing happening in the Farm Bill. All the farmers know and the practitioners and the activists and the scholars. And so, there’s an optimistic way you could look at this and say there are such innovative, broadly far-reaching exciting pilot programs tucked into the Miscellaneous Title or even into the Horticultural Title around farmer’s markets, around racial justice, around food waste prevention, wasted food prevention. But on a macro level, it’s tucked into the Miscellaneous Title, oftentimes with discretionary funding, not mandatory, so you have to fight for it each five years. And the appropriations get divvied out, so it’s not rock solid in terms of mandatory appropriations. And so there are wonderful pilot programs that began in the 2018 Farm Bill, frankly, directly because of scholars and activists and civil society clamoring for it. But on the macro level, the bulk of the Farm Bill itself is status quo in terms of commodity crop overproduction when you really kind of see where it’s going and it’s largely going to ethanol or to concentrated animal feeding operations, CAFOs, or to highly processed additives for foods that aren’t nourishing. So yes, it’s exciting that there are these micro provisions and there’s these pilot programs that are so exciting tucked away into the Miscellaneous Title, but arguably the scale of the problem that we’re in now demands a much more transformational approach to the Farm Bill.

Brenna: Thank you so much for weighing in on that. I was excited to hear your thoughts.

Norbert: Garrett, I know that you are committed to social justice, especially around food and agriculture. What is the social equity lens to food waste and loss that you think is important for people to consider?

Thank you for that. So wasted food is a tragedy of squandered farm work, top soil, water, energy, shipping containers, and single-use plastic wrapping. All of the labor, all of the time going into food that ends up becoming methane and egregious climate greenhouse gas. And so I think when we look at this situation, there’s an issue of wasted resources, but there’s also the injustice of the people who are doing much of the work along that supply chain to get that food to people’s table themselves can’t afford food. So the inequity, the acute injustice of food insecurity next to and even within the system of wasted food is a disaster. But, it’s also defining of a failure of governance and a failure of our research institutions. There are so many smart people in the US, so many expensive labs, so many great research infrastructures and networks. Surely there’s a way to coordinate these smart minds into analysis and interventions that prevent wasted food and that move agricultural production to where it needs to go, to hungry mouths and to people’s plates and to remunerate food producers fairly for their harvests. So the urgency of wasted food has become one of the defining parts of my research and my teaching in my scholarship. In terms of the history of this, I was fascinated with how surplus is not used as a term. This is something that Norbert and I are researching. Ag economists and Ag policy experts don’t use the words overproduction or glut or surplus these days. But if you go back into the archives, it is such a ubiquitous problem that in the archives, it’s called the Farm Problem. It’s actually just called the Farm Problem and it’s the problem of overproduction. And so, a little bit of history here, World War I, there was a whole incentive structure by the US government to feed the allies over in Europe and win the war through wheat production. So all of these farmers in Europe and throughout the Middle East who were part of World War I were in the trenches. They needed wheat. So, the US ramped up wheat production. It actually incentivized farmers to go out into the prairies and dig up those deep-rooted prairie grasses and plant wheat, single season wheat. And prices were good. And so, what do farmers do when prices are good? They grow more. And so, there was more and more production in 1914, 1915, 1916. Then the survivors of World War I crawled out of the trenches, went back to their farms and grew their own wheat. Then there was too much wheat on the global market and prices started to go down. What do farmers do when prices go down? They grow more. So all of a sudden, US farmers were madly ripping up prairie grasses, deep rooted prairie grass, planting more wheat. There was so much wheat on the global market in 1918 that it crashed the prices. There was an agrarian economic crisis in the US in 1919 and 1920, and farmers went to DC and said, “Please help us end this cycle of overproduction. We’re competing with ourselves, with each other, our neighbors, and it’s suicidal.” And so that began the broader political movement to have supply management with the price floor for farmer viability and a way to not overproduce and destroy the soil, which is what led to the Dust Bowl. By the time you get to the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, you’ve got a whole system of supply management which was in place. It was dysfunctional. It was not perfect. It largely helped White male farmers and it had some other issues to excluding tenant farmers who were largely Black farmers in the deep south, but as a principle to stave off the ravages of just kind of capitalism unfettered in agriculture, it was important to think about as a precedent. And so, cut to 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, by the 1970s, it’s really eroded the supply management and by the 1980s, 1990s, it’s gone. By the 1996 Farm Bill, there’s hardly any supply management or price floors left. I think what’s interesting for us is that there’s a powerful precedent from a governance perspective of ways to mitigate cycles of overproduction. Now we’re in a situation where there’s not only no mechanisms from a policy perspective to mitigate overproduction, it’s enabled and totally forgotten. There’s really an amnesia about these parody policies, these price floors, these supply managements, these non-recourse loans, these quotas, which again, were not perfect, but they were an honest recognition that you have to have some protection. Otherwise, the corporate buyers and the broader political economy will just drive down the farm gate price and the farmers individually will just overproduce to try to get out and exacerbate the problem. I think looking at the historical origin of the Farm Bill helps us have clues as to how we could update it. How we could expand it. How we could make it more fair for a broader diversity of farmers. How it could apply to much more diverse crops than just these eight commodity crops, these kind of handful of commodity crops that it was designed for. So how could parody pricing and supply management be updated for ecological production, nourishing food production for a whole new generation of BIPOC farmers? I think we’re thinking about that history as inspiration for agricultural policies moving forward that coordinate supply and demand more wisely frankly.

Brenna: Those are really interesting perspectives. I had no idea about the Farm Problem language use and I’m really curious to hear more about what you and Norbert are doing and look forward to seeing those results in the future. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about what food waste and loss looks like from an international perspective and what are some of the policies abroad or globally that you think contribute to the wasted food that we see today?

It’s a great question, Brenna. I’ll preface by saying there are myriad international perspectives. So I certainly don’t want to presume to speak on behalf of these international perspectives, but I’ll also say that one cannot address this issue from a national perspective alone. One never could, but particularly now because the US agricultural policies and practices and the actual food stuffs and the climate emissions are deeply connected to those around the world and vice versa. There’s a dominant political economy that is really impacting farmers and fishers around the world. It’s really fascinating that the millions of different agricultural, aqua agricultural food systems around the world are now related to each other through price setting that is globalized and through supply chain pressures. Even at this point, Ag extension and national governments are all working very closely with or for a few set of agro-corporate firms. There is this incredible interconnectedness and interconnectedness sounds great, but in this context, it is an interconnectedness to a set of private industries – Cargill, Archer-Daniels-Midland, Walmart, PepsiCo, Monsanto, Bayer – input suppliers and corporate buyers. They have inordinate influence on national governments and agricultural extensions and ministries of Ag around the world. And philanthropy – the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – which is technically a philanthropic organization, but has deep ties to private industry from the standpoint of Microsoft data and agricultural data. Which is, frankly, as farmers say around the world, “my data is worth more than my product.” There’s an enormous political economy of agricultural data at work right now. So there is an interconnectedness around the world that we need to analyze.

There’s also a set of political economies and paradigms around the world that are very powerful. A model of development that is so pervasive around the world is that there is, underdeveloped or developed, there is a paradigm or an expectation that farmers around the world will want to and need to industrialize their respective farms. And that expectation, that model or that paradigm demeans or denigrates a whole set of agricultures around the world that are small scale and that are low input and that are biodiverse and that are not export oriented. That are oriented toward feeding local farmer’s markets or local village markets or local families or networks. So there’s a systemic devaluation of farming practices that are oriented toward local or regional production that have agro-biodiversity at their heart, that have semi-subsistence or low input agricultural models at their heart. A systemic glorification of very high input, intensive export-oriented commodity crop monocultural overproduction. So that paradigm makes its way into Ag extension agents, makes its way into philanthropic donations, makes its way into agricultural aid, agricultural development funding. And that paradigm is global. Every village around the world is either internalizing the inferiority of their small-scale production and their biodiverse production or resisting it, frankly. There’s a whole global movement that’s resisting that paradigm and says actually a climate-resilient future would need to have agroecological production grounded in Indigenous and African diaspora foodways. A lot of culturally-specific, place-based agrarian knowledge, which is not necessarily export-oriented though it could be, but is more geared toward feeding or nourishing local villages or communities or networks. There is a whole global movement of farmers and farm coalitions that say why denigrate that as underdeveloped? Why not celebrate that as actually the future of climate-resilient, climate-just agroecological production.

Brenna: Garrett, I know that you are committed to social justice, especially around food and agriculture. So what is the social equity lens to food waste and loss that you think is really important for people to consider?

So thank you for that. I’ll say the first one is that there is food insecurity. There’s hunger in the system that’s producing wasted food and that, as I’ve said before, is a tragedy and an injustice and a failure of research and governance to think through how we can prevent that. And, how we can move nourishing food to people who need it and while remunerating the farmers and the food providers and the fishers for the beautiful work of feeding people. So that’s the most acute level. But I also want to say, getting back to history, I know that’s one of the themes of today, looking at histories of policies are so important. The archives have so much to teach us. But also elders and farmer elders around the world have so much to teach us. So oral history is a methodology that I love and I respect and I use and particularly Indigenous and African diaspora and immigrant elders in the US who have such knowledge of agrarian practices, of agroecological production, of seed saving, of foodways, of nourishing foodways, of climate-resilient foodways. Those sets of knowledges have been frankly systematically devalued by academia – by my institutions – as underdeveloped or as passe or as irrelevant. But in fact, as climate crisis encroaches, those knowledges of how to forage in the forest, how to grow nourishing gardens, how to grow agrobiodiverse farms, how to raise livestock breeds, heritage breeds, these knowledges that have been devalued frankly along gender and class and racial lines need to be celebrated. There’s an epistemic inequity at work in our current situation where the real knowledges of how to grow nourishing food and provide nourishing food have been devalued when right now we need those knowledges more than ever. So there’s a whole reevaluation and reclamation of agrarian place-based agroecological knowledge that I think will help us, not just prevent wasted food and really re-localize and re-regionalize supply chains and markets and economies and ecologies, but also help us provide nourishing food for communities in a climate-resilient and climate-just way.

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