What can Anthropology teach us about food waste? An introduction

Food waste is a topic that has been gaining more attention in the last years, people are increasingly concerned about it, governments are starting to take initiative to reduce it and more and more organizations are promoting local actions with the aim of reaching a more sustainable future. It’s interesting to see how Anthropology, one of the least known sciences, can offer some relevant considerations to add to the existing conversation.

As humans we live in a world of symbols, we interpret what is around us in different ways depending on both the socio-cultural environment we live in and on personal experience. The set of ideas and practices that result from our process of living are what we could define as 'Culture'.

Anthropologists have long debated about the definition of culture and are still not all agreeing on just one. As an introduction we can here use the description that was given by E.B Tylor, British (pre-)anthropologist from the 19th century:

Culture…is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society"

(Tylor 1920 [1871]: 1) [1]

Considering this, Cultural Anthropology is the study of human societies and cultures, the study of our different visions and interpretations of the world. We have to distinguish it from Physical Anthropology that rather deals with human’s biological evolution during time.

What makes Cultural Anthropology different from other social sciences is the fact that it is mainly based on the methodology of ethnographic field work research with the technique of participant observation. This means that it produces qualitative data based on the firsthand experience of the researcher through direct participation and observation of socio-cultural phenomena, based on specific context, with the result of producing a particular type of knowledge that is not possible to achieve with other research methodologies.

As a social science, it has many different areas of specialization - as many as there exist different dimensions of human life: Medical, Economic, Political, Social, Visual, Environmental and Food Anthropology are just some examples between the different areas of interest.

As a cultural anthropologist, with an interest for Environmental and Food Anthropology, I am willing to explore the link between the alteration of global ecosystems and food habits in western societies. As we know, agriculture is the main cause of the destruction of natural ecosystems and if we want to propose a reflection on environmental issues we have to consider the different aspects of food production and consumption. As the American writer Wendell Berry says, “food is an agricultural act” [2], so the act of eating is closely tied to the process of production and the alteration of ecosystems and landscapes. To be more specific, I studied food waste and the Freeganism movement in different cultural contexts.

For humans, food is not only a fundamental component for survival, but it is a category closely linked to the symbolic, cultural and individual dimensions: an object of great significance. We are omnivores but we don’t eat everything. Some things we avoid for practical reasons of biological matter and some others we don’t eat because of specific beliefs. Through the act of eating a person is not only introducing food in the body but is also accepting the set of meanings that that particular food represents. As the sociologist Claude Fishler says following the ideas of the famous french anthropologist Levi-Strauss:

“food must not only be good to eat but also good to think”

(Fishler 1999:284) [3]

The act of eating incorporates the eater in a culinary system, he says, and is crucial in the creation of individual and group identity. We could have an example of that if we think about food taboos in different religions (pig meat in the Islamic culture, cow meat for the Hindus), the avoiding of eating pet animals in western culture, or simply if we consider the contemporary ‘food tribes’ like the vegetarians or the vegans. It is clear that nutrition is an activity that is regulated by deep cultural mechanisms and has strong symbolic components.

To be able to consider the phenomenon of food waste on an anthropological level, it’s important to introduce the theories about the categorization of reality proposed by the British anthropologist Mary Douglas. In her book ‘Purity and Danger’ [4], she explains how every culinary tradition is tied to the symbolic interpretation of the world. The food that is at the center of the taboos is theoretically considered contaminated and a danger for society and for whoever eats it. In an opposite way, what is part of the culinary tradition and is edible is what is considered accepted and ‘pure’. Using this theory we can think about food waste as a category that is theoretically and practically a ‘danger’ and its consumption does not normally occur in society, for most people it’s considered normal only in situations of poverty and social exclusion.

Food waste occurs in the different phases of the food supply chain: production, distribution and consumption. A famous report of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says that we waste 1/3 of the food produced in the world, which is an impressive number. There are products that are discarded because of the natural process during the cultivating phase, others that exit the chain in the phase of distribution and also a lot of food is wasted by the consumers at home. In a capitalist society where the neoliberal logic is dominant also in the food chain, many products enter the bin of supermarkets because they have aesthetic characteristics that are considered a defect. Some have passed the date of expiration (even if the experiences consumption could prove that they are still edible), some because the packaging is damaged. Different ethnographic researches and practical evidence have proved that in the phase of distribution many elements are wasted, not because they lose the nutritional characteristics of edibility, being practically dangerous, but because they lose the capacities for being sold. The result is that this food is put in a bin that automatically transforms it all together in the homogenous and uninteresting category of ‘waste’. Having lost its economical value doesn’t mean that some food couldn't still be valuable on a nutritional and social level, as we said it is a multidimensional element and putting edible food to waste means to misspend all these other dimensions that it incorporates. This food could still be eaten or shared between individuals, being a source of nourishment and creating new social interactions.

Taste Before You Waste, is aiming to revalue these components of the products that otherwise would all fall into the symbolic group of waste. The transition from the category of waste back to the one of food is not automatic, it must pass through the process of sorting by evaluating with the senses what is edible or not, and finally through the activity of cooking can the products be officially introduced back into the culinary system. As we can see, the course of the rescued products from the category of waste back to the one of food is a ritual of passage, similar to the ones studied by anthropologists, where the people at the center of the process change from one state to another. By doing so not only the nutritional value of the food is restored but also, as with TBYW’s dinners, the social component that comes with it is put into value. What we are seeing here is the transformation of the categorization of the discarded food as ‘dangerous’ into something that is again perfectly ‘pure’ and edible. By rescuing food, people are extending what the Indian anthropologist Arjun Appadurai would call the “social life of objects”[5], they invert the logic of the capitalist system whereby if a product exits the market as a discarded item is destined to the landfill.

Social sciences in general try to look beyond the datas; quantitative sources are important to understand some aspects but they usually don’t help us to understand how and why some phenomena exist. Anthropology, by recognizing the cultural meanings tied to the category of food and waste, can help us to have a deeper look at the different dynamics playing in specific cultural contexts. It can give us interesting insight into the interpretation of the phenomenon and can offer some relevant views on how to consider food waste not only as a practical problem related to the malfunction of the system but also as a reality that exists because it’s tied to specific symbolic values proper to our society.

Metella Senni


[1] TYLOR, E.B. 1920 [1871]. Primitive Culture. New York: J.P. Putnam’s Sons.

[2] BERRY, W. "The Pleasures of Eating”; What Are People For?, North Point Press 01/1980.

[3] FISCHLER C. (1999). “Food, self and identity”. Social Scence Information, SAGE, London. 27, 275-92.

[4] DOUGLAS, M. (1966). Purity and Danger. An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Praeger.

[5] APPADURAI, A. (1986). “Introduction: Commodities and the politics of value” em The social life of things, Commodities in cultural perspective. Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-63.



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