INTERROGATING WASTE: Vastogenic regimes in the 21st century


This chapter builds on two previous pieces (Cloke 2013, 2016) in which the author trialled the concept of vastogenesis, the premise that waste-generation should not be read as an unfortunate side-effect of consumer capitalism which is susceptible to a technological or organizational fix, but as a core, essential component of mass consumption. The operationalization of vastogenesis by various corporate actors increases the profitability of the consumer regime in which it is present, be it (for example) food, clothing or electronics. From the original idea the author loosely outlined the idea of vastogenic regimes (‘waste producing, waste dominated and profiting from waste’; Cloke 2013: 628), based on previous work describing a ‘Third Agro-Food Order’ (Pistorius and van Wijk 1999: 51), a ‘neoliberal food regime’ (Pechlaner and Otero 2008, 2) and a ‘corporate food regime’ (McMichael 2009: 285).1

As globalizing capitalism in the 21st century has led to increased sectoral concentration across consumer goods in which groups of hegemons dominate globally in wholesale/retail goods, so vastogenesis has increased as a critical mechanism of profitability; in the case of food, vastogenic mechanisms connect global zones of mass food production to zones of mass consumption through reflexive production, distribution and transport systems. The core purpose of this chapter is to deconstruct the idea of waste-as-waste, proposing instead that the commodification of waste turns it into a proxy exchange value through (a) the value of the waste itself, but more importantly (b) as a mechanism for speeding up consumption and the throughflow of mass-consumed materials.

Using the UK as a case study, this chapter explores the conceptual territory of waste and how a growth in vastogenesis is intensified by sectoral concentration in and across globalizing capitalism. Contractual domination, sub-contracting and monopsonist practices (for example) by global food TNCs are all means by which waste and food production are locked into carefully controlled food production regimes which greatly enhance through- flow and profitability, as the ability to control commodity and food prices at the bottom of the food production chain is complemented by control over sale prices in zones of food consumption through food abundance.

The chapter will also examine the role of appetite creation as one of the driving forces of vastogenesis. Far from being mere suppliers of necessary foodstuffs and responders to demand, food wholesale/retail hegemons are actively involved in the creation of consumer demand through constant expansion of food ranges and through attempts to capture market share by appeals to the symbolism of sophistication, the exotic and modernity that sell a globalist, cosmopolitan diet in zones of mass food consumption.

The food waste paradox

Global food production and food waste are beset by paradox — although global agricultural production matched the doubling of the world’s population between 1961 and 2007 and was ‘sufficient to feed not only the current population but projected increases to 2050 (OECD 2009; Nature 20102)’ (Cloke 2013: 625), by 2016 according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) roughly 10.7% of the world’s population was still suffering from ‘chronic undernourishment’.' Additionally, one-third of that increase in agricultural production was wasted, even though material estimates of current global food waste would feed the undernourished four times over.' How to explain over-production, waste and mass consumption alongside undernourishment and early death, a world in which 41 million children under the age of five were overweight or obese in 20164 and in which simultaneously a third of child deaths every year are caused by malnutrition?3

Current official interpretations of food security and food waste leave systemic, regime- induced factors out of the picture, failing completely to depict the internal mechanisms through which such regimes enhance profitability through waste. Rather than looking at the complex systems of power and control that produce these social paradoxes, where the particular issue of waste is concerned they concentrate on narrow technical and scalar issues, reifying waste as an unfortunate systemic side-effect. Institutions such as the FAO continue to address the contradictions of massive over-production, massive waste and coexisting undernourishment and obesity through the optics of enhanced technical efficiency, increased productivity, increased use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and a range of security strategies aimed at individual households, local and national governments. What is lacking from such analyses is any understanding of corporate food regimes (McMichael 2009) and their systemicity.

Despite the invisibilization of corporate systemicity and its related biopolitics7 in official writing on food production, food security' and food waste, there is an extensive literature of academic takes on food security' and food production problematizing these global food regimes. From the suggestion of a third agro-food order (Pistorius and van Wijk 1999) to Nally’s ‘historically new modality of biopower’ (2011: 44), various authors have moved the totality of food production issues toward what is suggested here is a form of ‘new materialism’ (Coole and Frost 2010) about which ‘primarily textual accounts are insufficient for an adequate understanding of the complex and dynamic interplay of meaning and matter’ (Lemke 2015: 3).

Explaining the food waste paradox therefore is not just a question of systemic analysis but of interrogating the signifier ‘waste’ (in this case food waste8), what is signified by' it and the hegemonic regimes that produce it. Having introduced the idea of vastogenic systems - put simply, biopolitical systems produced of and for waste (Cloke 2013, 2016) - the author now seeks to push the interrogation further by deconstructing waste-as-doxtf — Bourdieu’s (1977) concept of something so generally accepted that it ‘goes without saying because it comes without saving’.1 Waste needs to be explicated as a form of biopolitical power, as a social relationship rendering it both co-constitutive of and interdependent with value — food (indeed all consumer products) in this view is more than just a vehicle for waste — the potential for waste in food products and the waste involved in producing them is part of their value.

The practice of knowledge about waste, therefore, dovetails with Foucault’s practices of knowledge produced through relationships of power (Peters 2007: 166), but the relationships of power here are not specifically those of the sovereign state, but those of a state/cor- porate/consumer hybrid. The state/corporate biopolitics concerned are in addition not focused on the ‘population’ but on ‘consumer/consumption’, which acts to re-focus Foucault’s ‘specific knowledges and techniques’ (Foucault 1989: 106). The biopower of vastogenic systems and how waste is interpreted through them is ‘intimately linked to the constitution and transformation of human bodies and human life’, defining a ‘set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object of a political strategy’ (Foucault 2007: 1, cited in Lentke 2015: 7). To put it another way, in this take the key biopolitical mechanisms through which biopower is expressed in 21st-century capitalism are not those of the state - the state has been suborned by a complex mixture of multi-scalar organizations, relationships and mechanisms under corporate regimes which control the fundamental biological mechanisms underpinning human existence - food, water, air (through pollution/non-pollution) and health.

Getting to know waste

As the systemicity of food waste has changed over time and what is perceived as food waste has greatly increased, so definitions of waste have also changed to try to incorporate the ways in which the official doxa, waste, is enacted. Despite the changes in definition over time, one constant can be detected, an all-absorbing focus on the ‘discarding’ of materials, from ‘Wholesome edible material intended for human consumption, arising at any point in the food supply chain (FSC) that is instead discarded, lost, degraded or consumed by pests’ (FAO 1981) to ‘Food waste is part of food loss and refers to discarding or alternative (non-food) use of food that is safe and nutritious for human consumption along the entire food supply chain, from primary production to end household consumer level’ (FAO 2014).10

Focusing on the materiality of waste as ‘any substance or object the holder discards, intends to discard or is required to discard’11 first makes the mistake of treating waste ‘as abstraction rather than as always existing in a concrete materiality and in concrete social relationships’(Gille 2010: 1053), and second, it detaches waste from value. As Gille points out, in fact ‘without waste there is no value’ (2013: 28); not only that, but as the changes in official definitions illustrate, try as we might to reify the concept of waste, definitions keep changing, not just because the physical content is changing, but because changes in type, volume and location are created in the first place by the changing reality of waste as a social relationship.

The themes of vastogenic social relationships and value add another dimension to an older literature on consumer citizenship (see, for instance, Gabriel and Lang 1995), where waste is a constitutive part of the value of consumption and therefore a mediating mechanism for the establishment of value. Returning to the biopolitics of waste, the social relationships that determine waste, value and consumption are increasingly critical components of the ‘government of things’ which ‘takes into account the interrelatedness and entanglements of men and things, the natural and the artificial, the physical and the moral’ (Lemke 2015: 3); vastogenesis is central to the interrelatedness of people and things and therefore the governmentality of corporatized global capitalism.

Reconsidering a new ‘epistemological, ontological and political status of materiality’ (Lemke 2015: 3-4) in global food production regimes brings the observer to the inescapable conclusion that the distinction between ‘edible’ and ‘waste’ food is a false binary - what matters in vastogenic systems is accelerated throughflow of material, and the only difference between food and waste is the different processes the systemic material goes through in order to create co-constitutive forms of value for the system — food system material is ‘active, forceful and plural rather than passive, inactive and unitar)'’ (Lemke 2015). That active role is directly related to the profitability' of the system, ‘[profitability is contingent upon unit sales: the imperative is throughput’ (Sage 2013: 4). The food/waste dyad is an ‘active object’ through which the profit-focused biopower of corporate food regimes is mediated.

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