The Kritic

‘Social’ Category

One person’s trash is another person’s breakfast.

One person’s trash is another person’s breakfast.Sascha Kohlmann CC BY

Each year, Australian households throw out some A$8 billion worth of edible food, with those aged 18 to 24 reported as the biggest wasters.

However, this household figure is likely far outweighed by the value of food waste generated by commercial retailers. In truth, our youth are but one contributor to what could be deemed a massive market failure.

But some people are looking for different ways to approach food and waste. Over three months I interviewed 21 young environmentalists from Melbourne, exploring how and why they began “dumpster diving”: searching waste bins for food.

While there are many reasons why someone might choose – or be forced by economic circumstances – to investigate trash, the young people I spoke to cited a range of motivations: to reduce waste; to create a sense of community; and because they did not want to support unsustainable food markets.

Dumpster divers, like these young Montrealers, are all over the world.

Dumpster divers, like these Montrealers, are all over the world.Stéphanie Vé CC BY-NC-SA

Understanding dumpster diving

Food waste is estimated to cost the Australian economy A$20 billion a year (this includes commercial and industrial sector waste, as well as waste disposal charges).

The Australian government is developing legislation with the aim of halving food wastage by 50%. Effective solutions could result in tremendous savings and considerable environmental benefit.

While dumpster diving is obviously not a wholesale solution to the problem of food waste, young consumers’ changing attitudes are an important part of our national conversation.

My findings show that Melbourne’s young environmentalists regularly visit dumpsters at vegetable markets, supermarkets and bakeries.

My interviewees were motivated to dumpster dive by a range of factors besides the obvious gain of free food and goods. Framing the deed as economic necessity fails to capture a variety of incentives.

It’s worth noting that the limited demographic I studied means these results cannot be associated with those who dumpster-dive out of genuine need. Rather, those I interviewed wanted to reduce food waste and avoid supporting the “mainstream” food economy. One young environmentalist told me:

I never in my childhood and afterwards had a shortage of food in my life. I think the reason that I started [dumpster diving] and one of the main reasons that I continue it is because I think it’s environmentally a good thing to do […] I am not buying things. I am not contributing to unsustainable food production.

Several participants said they refused to buy from companies with unacceptable environmental credentials. For them, dumpster diving is not an occasional activity but a planned and ongoing way of life. They attempt to create an alternative “free” food economy based on minimising waste and sharing resources.

However, members of the group are aware of opposition to the practice. Several had experienced confrontations with retail staff, security guards and members of the public. One interviewee said:

I think they [supermarket authorities] worry about losing business [as] people get food from their bins, not from the supermarket; it’s a part of their worry as well. They ask me to leave. I ask, ‘Why?’ It’s ridiculous. Why can’t they let me have this food that will probably end up in landfill?

Feel-good and fun

Dumpster divers are also motivated by the emotional bonds they form as a group. They’re part of a broader subculture of “alternative” consumers, who commonly share food; they describe themselves as “a community of free food people”.

Several expressed a “feel good” and “fun” dimension to the activity. Acquiring unpredictable “finds” created a sense of novelty and surprise, and a feeling that the rewards were “worked for”. They mirror more traditional shopping habits like “treasure-hunting”, or the thrill of finding a bargain.

Retailers’ perspective

Businesses have a mixed attitude towards dumpster divers.

Businesses have a mixed attitude towards dumpster divers.Bruce Flingerhood CC BY

From a retailer’s perspective, dumpster diving presents a different face. Although one interviewee accused retailers of protecting their profits, there’s also the risk of a dumpster diver being injured, or getting sick from unsafe food.

While some companies actively support or are empathetic towards dumpster divers, others call for the prosecution of divers whom they believe to be stealing. Diving is illegal in many developed countries such as Germany and New Zealand (although prosecutions are rare).

Everybody involved in the food chain has a role to play in reducing food waste. Retailers can work to optimise their supply chain, reduce the amount of produce on display or accept less-than-perfect produce from farmers. Products approaching expiring should be heavily discounted, or donated to charities (although food banks aren’t a panacea).

We as consumers should also be willing to adjust our expectations of perfect produce, something explored in the ABC program War on Waste and campaigns like the United States’ Ugly Fruit and Veg.

More fundamentally, we need to change our attitude to food. Thinking about why and how we create waste and exploring different perspectives – like dumpster diving – are all part of this process.

The ConversationUltimately, the purpose of dumpster diving is to highlight and provide an alternative to the food waste embedded in everyday business models. At the end of the day, the way forward is for each of us to consider and reflect on our own habits of consumption.

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
By Chamila Perera, Lecturer, Swinburne University of Technology
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Woman and ChocolateSource: Petr Kratochvil

Food fraud is a major issue, particularly in organic products.

Ten percent of products in the food and drink category are “adulterated or mislabeled,” according to a new study by Ecovia Intelligence, an ethical product research firm. Seafood, parmesan cheese, Kobe beef, herbal tea – all of these products were investigated and outed as oft-disguised and mis-marketed in Larry Olmstead’s 2016 food fraud expose, “Real Food/Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating and What You Can Do About It.”

But what about labeled grocery products we’re conditioned to trust? Especially products that can charge a high premium for being “ethical” or “sustainable”? Chocolate, particularly, comes to mind. The bean-to-bar phenomenon can command upwards of $10 for a single chocolate bar, but are we really getting what we pay for? According to an April 2016 study on millennial purchasing habits, the artisanal-loving generation often fails to ask questions about the ethics of their chocolate sourcing, so we asked the questions ourselves.

First, what, other than an arbitrary label, qualifies chocolate as sustainable?

“I see the sustainability discussion from two angles, the socioeconomic—fair prices and labour practices—and the environmental—sound agricultural practices, biodiversity, etc.,” says Michael Laiskonis, creative director of the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City.

“Most cocoa farms throughout the world are small family holdings of just a few acres and their output, high costs and intensive labor required often mean cocoa farmers straddle established poverty lines,” he explains. “The complex collection and distribution system as cocoa beans travel from origin to factory to consumer compounds the issue of fair farmer prices, who are often left with the smallest portion of a chocolate bar’s retail price.”

Laiskonis says he’s personally unaware of any intentional food fraud or mislabelling in the chocolate industry, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

“There are few, if any industry standards (government or self-imposed) when it comes to labelling and understanding the process and provenance of a bar,” Laiskonis explains, noting that a few label cues, like an origin or cocoa variety statement, grower information and insight into the manufacturing process can help guide consumers toward sustainable choices.

While third-party certifications like “Direct Trade,” “Fair Trade,” “Rainforest Alliance” and “organic” may be helpful, they’re also cost-prohibitive for small farmers, as well as ineffective, thanks to bureaucracy in several cocoa-growing parts of the world. Pricing can also be an effective way to sort through chocolate bars, knowing that some chocolatiers will inflate their prices because of the popularity of the fine chocolate market, but a cheap chocolate bar probably reflects cheaply sourced beans or low-quality chocolate.

The best way to feel confident that your chocolate is ethical and sustainable is to know your maker.

“I often advise that the more transparent, detailed and credible the story offered by the chocolate-maker, the better chance that the chocolate is of higher quality, produced with greater care, and ultimately, with a greater sense of ethical responsibility,” Laiskonis says.

In the case of Greg D’Alesandre, the chocolate sourcer and owner of bean-to-bar chocolatier Dandelion Chocolate, an annual public sourcing report (which includes where the beans come from, how much Dandelion pays and how the operation works) helps him connect to consumers on a traceable human level.

D’Alesandre spends over 20 weeks of the year travelling to visit producers in 25 different cocoa-growing countries in order to find the best possible cocoa for his business, so he can feel comfortable with the farms he’s buying from.

“Most people in the world are trying to do a great job at the thing that they’re doing,” D’Alesandre told AlterNet, on a rare week he was actually working from his headquarters in San Francisco. He gives producers the benefit of the doubt, building trust with them in order to “be as transparent as humanly possible.”

Knowing producers personally, and having point people around the world, allows him to communicate openly with his clients and create relationships. But, he admits, “Trust is a tricky thing,” adding that “some people look to certifications [for buying chocolate], but we have a personal relationship with the people that we work with. With a certification, people go to audit what’s going on. But it’s easy to lie to an auditor; it may be harder to lie to me. An auditor is checking on you; I am buying the beans—lying to me can put our business relationship at risk.” And with all the elements he inspects, he says, “lying would become laughably complex.”

In one instance, D’Alesandre was relieved that a farm in the Dominican Republic informed him that a fermentory mixed its beans with another farm’s beans, making the cocoa to be used in the Dandelion bar a combination of blended beans rather than “single reserve.” D’Alesandre still purchased the beans, labelled the chocolate bars accordingly, and continued his relationship with the farm.

Because he only visits most of his producers one week out of the year or less, D’Alesandre knows that the other 51 weeks of the year could potentially look very different at the site, but still attributes on-the-ground research to knowing the true origin of a chocolate bar (he said some large companies, like Valrhona, excel at this).

“It’s much more about me understanding the people who we’re working with, to make sure that we have aligned values,” D’Alesandre said. “I rarely run into people who have any ill intent. They are sustenance and crop farmers trying to produce good cacao—the land is their livelihood.”

Certifications can be prohibitively expensive for farmers, so D’Alesandre will also look to see how well they’re treating the environment and using their land, avoiding burning crops and using chemical pesticides and fertilisers. Most likely, the farmers can’t afford chemicals, nor would they want to use them, as chemicals don’t help cocoa grow any faster. D’Alesandre also evaluates how money is distributed among workers, especially based on the cost of labour in each region.

To determine pricing for his chocolate, he looks at what “people need to survive” in a given area—not the standard rate companies are willing to pay for cocoa—in order to keep business ethical and sustainable. “That’s the biggest reason we have the sourcing program we have; [we don’t use] what the world market says is ‘fair.'”

To know if your chocolate is ethically, humanely and sustainably sourced, the best and perhaps only verifiable way is to see the production with your own eyes. With social media, that has become more doable, but the next best thing is speaking with your chocolatier or producer of bean-to-bar chocolate. D’Alesandre can tell detailed stories about the locations he’s visited, and he’s not going to sugarcoat the situations in cocoa farms across the planet.

While he’s never witnessed slave labour or forcible child labour on his site visits, he says it’s common to see children working with their families on their family farms. “In some countries, there are no schools; the kids are working with their families on the farm and they don’t perceive it as ‘labour,'” explains D’Alesandre. “There’s no other option for what to do with their child, but they want them to have an education and a better life.” Supporting ethical, sustainable small business can hopefully boost a local economy and lead to educational opportunities further down the line.

More than anything, knowing the reality of the everyday lives of the people growing and selling the cocoa will verify what a $10 bar of chocolate truly is. “[Some] people travel for an exotic vacation, rather than seeing what’s actually on the ground,” says D’Alesandre. “It’s just a nice story to tell, until you talk to the people who are actually involved.”

Reposted with permission from AlterNet.
By Kylie Williams, Charles Sturt University
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