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Friday, April 11, 2014

The Economics of Wasting Food

Posted by on Fri, Apr 11, 2014 at 8:59 AM

In this post by Inhabitat, which concerns a World Bank report on the estimated amount of food humans waste, we find a piece of crucial information is missing...

According to the latest issue of the World Bank’s quarterly Food Price Watch, the world loses or wastes one-quarter to one-third of all food produced for human consumption. This shocking statistic means that while much of the world suffers from malnourishment, up 1520 calories per day are thrown away in the developed world.

This post makes it sound like this is a global problem that needs global solutions and not a problem caused by a few countries whose economies are ruled by the logic of the market. The truth of the matter, however, can simply be found in facts like this one, which is posted on the website for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP): Every year "consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes)."

Even the little speech by Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group, is quick to frame the problem in a global context and not one that has anything to do with the consumption habits of the inhabitants of advanced capitalist societies. Why? Because to do this would mean questioning the market, and therefore opening the door for solutions that would privilege human welfare over the core values of the market system.


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unknown_entity 1
Awfully quick to declare market economics so central to the problem that it may as well be the ONLY problem. Let's take a look at three issues that muddy the "capitalism-is-the-problem" argument.

1) Ethanol for fuel in the US: By law, 40% of the US corn crop must be diverted towards the production of ethanol for cars in the US. If it were left up to the market, not only would we not demand 40% of corn go to ethanol, we would look to more efficient sources of ethanol (e.g. importing it from Brazil where it is made with sugar cane).

2) Consumer preference - Go to a grocery store and look at two bunches of cilantro. One is fully green while the other has tinges of yellow. Would you, Charles, choose the yellowish one since you know it will be thrown away or would you buy the greenest, freshest bunch?

3) Building on #2, perishability is a major contributor to food being thrown out. The solution? Make food less perishable. Can it, freeze it, add preservatives, selectively breed crops to be hardier and spoil more slowly. In other words, take perishable foods with short shelf lives and process them to last longer. Somehow, I doubt that is what you want to see happen.
Posted by unknown_entity on April 11, 2014 at 9:24 AM · Report this

Sam Kinison had the best answer to people living in places where there is hunger:…

Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://_ on April 11, 2014 at 9:28 AM · Report this
I regularly buy wilting vegetables, put them in envelopes and write "Africa" on the outside. I make sure to apply sufficient air mail postage to make sure it actually gets there. Just doing my part to save the world.
Posted by Jude Fawley on April 11, 2014 at 9:29 AM · Report this
Theodore Gorath 4
Yet, Mudede advocates people abandoning their kitchens to eat out for every meal (must be nice to be wealthy enough for that), and restaurants waste tons of food in the name of the market.

Posted by Theodore Gorath on April 11, 2014 at 9:29 AM · Report this
@1 is correct that shelf life/ freshness are a huge source of waste. I would lump most of consumer preference into concerns about freshness as well.
Posted by wxPDX on April 11, 2014 at 9:52 AM · Report this
Fnarf 7
So many things wrong with this.

For starters, every economy that has ever existed, command or capitalist, has had markets (possibly excepting only the Incas). And, as you well know, Charles, the markets in command economies are the most inefficient (on the legal end) and brutal (on the black market) of all.

Human history is in fact the history of markets. Civilization IS markets; it's why people gathered in the "civ" part of that word in the first place.

Next up: markets are by far the most efficient way to distribute goods. Command economies waste far more than capitalist ones. In @1's example, the yellowing cilantro will probably sell if it's marked down 50% -- the most basic marketing move of all, one that you never see in command economies.

What poor countries need to reduce food waste is above all refrigeration. The food production of Sub-Saharan Africa is as nothing next to that of India, for instance, which is the kind of place the World Bank and Inhabitant are talking about, where vast quantities of food goes bad in the heat before it even gets to a market.

(Anecdote: we used to get a box of "fresh" produce from a CSA farm, but we stopped because when those boxes sat in the hot room at the dropoff point in the neighborhood even for just a couple of hours, half the contents would mold.)

We may throw away our peas without eating them in the West, but we get virtually all of them to the table, through the miracle of flash-freezing in the fields (frozen peas are fresher and have more nutrients than fresh, because they haven't sat in a box for four days in the back of the supermarket).

Properly run and regulated markets might also help Sub-Saharan Africa increase their yield quite a bit, to the point where even if they throw away a thousand calories per person every day people could get enough to eat. How much starvation has been caused in Africa by NGOs airlifting in tons of food, available only up the road in the refugee camp because the army wants the farms? Yes, they get a meal, but now they live in a refugee camp. Note that there are young adults in Eastern Congo, twenty years after the Rwanda massacres, who have literally never eaten any other foodstuff in their lives besides cassava (which is almost worthless as food). Those people would LOVE a chance at one of the markets you abhor -- and they'll create one out of nothing given a chance. There are markets of old bags and assorted other garbage in those camps.
Posted by Fnarf on April 11, 2014 at 10:14 AM · Report this
lark 8
@ 7 Fnarf,
Agree with you completely. Your assessment is accurate and fair. Having just returned from the Capitalistic er, Socialistic Republic of Vietnam, I viewed first hand how markets are essential and well... essentially free and necessary. They must be so in order to at least, feed the masses. @1 is correct as well.

I, perhaps like you, Charles and the masses of humanity do not "take food for granted". To be sure, many do especially but not only just Americans. I believe the free market has enabled the masses to be fed better than a controlled or command economy. But, there is great waste in both the developed world and underdeveloped world. You raise very good points especially regarding how some in Rwanda and elsewhere are still being fed via relief. Most unfortunate.

Good Morning Charles,
My only quibble is with your second paragraph. Markets are questioned. What needs to be questioned is distribution and the questionable governments that allow er, don't allow those masses to be fed when & where there is food available to distribute especailly via the free market. I suggest reading accounts of famine in places as diverse as Ukraine & India to get more viewpoints. Starvation CAN be averted.
Posted by lark on April 11, 2014 at 10:53 AM · Report this
Catalina Vel-DuRay 9
When I started in the hotel/restaurant business, it was still what I like to think of as the "big hair and chandelier" era: Huge bouquets of flowers, huge displays of fruits and vegetables, but if you looked closer, the fruits and vegetables were *always* wax or plastic (and more often than not the flowers were plastic or silk). And the portion sizes were realistic, plated up on normal sized dinner plates (and usually smaller plates at lunch)

This was because the people who ran those pouffy-draped, Muzak-besotted businesses grew up in times of deprivation - either here during the Depression, or in Europe, where the wartime shortages were even more acute. That generation did not take food waste lightly. Even unused butter came back to the kitchen to be used in cooking.

By contrast, just the other night, Mr. Vel-DuRay and I attended a perfectly dismal social affair at something called "The Crab Pot" on the waterfront. This place has perfected the art of the country boil (which, admittedly, is old as the hills), and actually gets people to shell out $30-$50 a head for a mish-mash of vegetables, shellfish and sausage that is unceremoniously dumped out on the table, for the participants to pick through. It was too much food, and too much mess, and too much edible stuff ended up in the garbage. Needless to say, it made me pine for long-dead places like The Golden Lion or The Westlake Room, where silver, linen and crystal were standard, people were expected to behave themselves, and the portions were civilized.

Posted by Catalina Vel-DuRay on April 11, 2014 at 11:30 AM · Report this
Charles, if consumers in rich countries wasted zero food, and thereby decreased their importation of food, which would reduce the amount of money the poor starving farmers make, do you think there would be less people starving? The problem of food availability has a lot more to do with logistics than with the production.
Posted by randoma on April 11, 2014 at 11:40 AM · Report this
keshmeshi 11

Staple foods are not typically imported into the U.S. from poor countries.


As someone who tries not to overeat as a general rule, one thing I absolutely loathe about American food culture is how many empty calories get dumped onto your plate regardless of where or what you're eating. When half my plate is loaded with 1,000 calories of rice, pasta, potatoes, or bread, I don't consider that to be a good value for my money, but I do consider that to be a massive waste.
Posted by keshmeshi on April 11, 2014 at 12:13 PM · Report this
@4 is an annoying troll worried about Charles as a character but he brings up an interesting point re: restaurants as sites of waste

to me the fastest method for relieving lots of world hunger seems to be well known to people from the brown hemisphere

1. migration
2. demand-side subsidies a la EBT
3. to @4's point, restaurants should be replaced by apartments and social services like schooz
Posted by alfresco on April 11, 2014 at 2:42 PM · Report this

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