The “Prevention Paradox”: food waste prevention and the quandary of systemic surplus production

Abstract

Preventing food waste is a major global challenge to the sustainability and security of the environment, society and economy. In response to that challenge, a plethora of initiatives addressing food waste have formed in recent years. These initiatives focus on aspects such as the efficiency of resource use, reduction of supply chain food waste, food donations and rescue, consumer behaviour, and above all, innovative ways to add value to food surplus and waste. What many initiatives have in common is that they mainly deal with food waste once it exists rather than preventing it from occurring in the first place, which might thwart efforts to increase long-term food systems sustainability. The idea of food waste prevention itself is beset by several conceptual paradoxes: it is considered the most preferred method to manage waste—which it was supposed to prevent in the first place, and it is an ambiguous ecological behaviour lacking the tangible characteristics of waste composting or recycling (i.e. prevention by its nature is invisible). Most importantly, food waste prevention, like other major sustainability challenges, appears to be in a fundamental conflict of interest with current economic norms and practices. In response to these dissonances of prevention and the inability of waste management to reduce the creation of food waste, researchers have proposed a number of new approaches, including the re-appraisal of food overproduction as a key cause of food waste. Accepting Mourad’s (Environ Soc Berkeley J Sociol 59:26–33, 2015) challenge to “think outside the bin”, this work proposes a “Prevention Paradox” framing as a conceptual link between the bodies of research on food overproduction and food waste prevention, offering a more holistic approach to this major sustainability challenge.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    “Supply restraint” can be described as a set of interventions to prevent supply from exceeding demand, thus avoiding unneeded surplus production.

  2. 2.

    The “rebound effect” or Jevon’s Paradox describes the negative consequence of increased consumption resulting from resource efficiency gains (e.g. O’Rourke and Lollo 2015, p. 241).

Abbreviations

EU:

European Union

EC:

European Commission

FAO:

Food and Agriculture Organisation

FUSIONS:

Food Use for Social Innovation by Optimising Waste Prevention Strategies

GDP:

Gross Domestic Product

NGO:

Non-governmental Organisation

SDG:

Sustainable Development Goals

UNEP:

United Nations Environment Programme

WRAP:

Waste and Resource Action Programme

WRI:

World Resource Institute

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program (RTP) Scholarship and funding made available via the Food Agility Cooperative Research Centre. The authors wish to express their gratitude to the anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and suggestions.

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Messner, R., Richards, C. & Johnson, H. The “Prevention Paradox”: food waste prevention and the quandary of systemic surplus production. Agric Hum Values 37, 805–817 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-019-10014-7

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Keywords

  • Food waste prevention
  • The Prevention Paradox
  • Overproduction
  • Overconsumption
  • Sustainable food systems
  • Sustainable development goals