Food Waste Delusions

A couple months ago the New York Times convened a conference "Food for Tomorrow: Farm Better. Eat Better. Feed the World."  Keynotes predictably included Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan.  It featured many food movement activists, famous chefs, and a whole lot of journalists. Folks talked about how we need to farm more sustainably, waste less food, eat more healthfully and get policies in place that stop subsidizing unhealthy food and instead subsidize healthy food like broccoli.

Sounds good, yes? If you're reading this, I gather you're familiar with the usual refrain of the food movement.  They rail against GMOs, large farms, processed foods, horrid conditions in confined livestock operations, and so on.  They rally in favor of small local farms who grow food organically, free-range antibiotic free livestock, diversified farms, etc.  These are yuppies who, like me, like to shop at Whole Foods and frequent farmers' markets.  

This has been a remarkably successful movement.  I love how easy it has become to find healthy good eats, bread with whole grains and less sugar, and the incredible variety and quality of fresh herbs, fruits, vegetables and meat.  Whole Paycheck Foods Market has proliferated and profited wildly.  Even Walmart is getting into the organic business, putting some competitive pressure on Whole Foods. (Shhhh! --organic isn't necessarily what people might think it is.)

This is all great stuff for rich people like us. And, of course, profits.  It's good for Bittman's and Pollan's book sales and speaking engagements.  But is any of this really helping to change the way food is produced and consumed by the world's 99%?  Is it making the world greener or more sustainable?  Will any of it help to feed the world in the face of climate change?

Um, no.  

Sadly, there were few experts in attendance that could shed scientific or pragmatic light on the issues.  And not a single economist or true policy wonk in sight. Come on guys, couldn't you have at least invited Ezra Klein or Brad Plummer?  These foodie journalists at least have some sense of incentives and policy. Better, of course, would be to have some real agricultural economists who actually know something about large-scale food production and policies around the world. Yeah, I know: BORING!

About agricultural polices: there are a lot of really bad ones, and replacing them with good policies might help.  But a lot less than you might think from listening to foodies.  And, um, we do subsidize broccoli and other vegetables, fruits, and nuts.  Just look at the water projects in the West. 

Let me briefly take on one issue du jour: food waste.  We throw away a heck of a lot of food in this country, even more than in other developed countries.  Why?  I'd argue that it's because food is incredibly cheap in this country relative to our incomes.  We are the world's bread basket.  No place can match California productivity in fruit, vegetables and nuts.  And no place can match the Midwest's productivity in grains and legumes.  All of this comes from remarkable coincidence of climate, geography and soils, combined with sophisticated technology and gigantic (subsidized) canal and irrigation systems in the West.  

Oh, we're fairly rich too.  

Put these two things together and, despite our waste, we consume more while spending less on food than any other country.  Isn't that a good thing?  Europeans presumably waste (a little) less because food is more scarce there, so people are more careful and less picky about what they eat. Maybe it isn't a coincidence that they're skinnier, too.

What to do? 

First, it's important to realize that there are benefits to food waste.  It basically means we get to eat very high quality food and can almost always find what we want where and when we want it.  That quality and convenience comes at a cost of waste.  That's what people are willing to pay for.  

If anything, the foodism probably accentuates preference for high quality, which in turn probably increases waste.  The food I see Mark Bittman prepare is absolutely lovely, and that's what I want.  Don't you?

Second, let's suppose we implemented a policy that would somehow eliminate a large portion of the waste.  What would happen?  Well, this would increase the supply of food even more.  And sinse we have so much already, and demand for food is very inelastic, prices would fall even lower than they are already.  And the temptation to substitute toward higher quality--and thus waste more food--would be greater still.  

Could the right policies help?  Well, maybe.  A little. The important thing here is to have a goal besides simply eliminating waste.  Waste itself isn't problem. It's not an externality like pollution.  That goal might be providing food for homeless or low income families.  Modest incentive payments plus tax breaks might entice more restaurants, grocery stores and others to give food that might be thrown out to people would benefit from it.  This kind of thing happens already and it probably could be done on a larger scale. Even so, we're still going to have a lot of waste, and that's not all bad. 

What about correcting the bad policies already in place?  Well, water projects in the West are mainly sunk costs.  That happened a long time ago, and water rights, as twisted as they may be, are more or less cemented in the complex legal history.   Today, traditional commodity program support mostly takes the form of subsidized crop insurance, which is likely causing some problems.  The biggest distortions could likely be corrected with simple, thoughtful policy tweaks, like charging higher insurance premiums to farmers who plant corn after corn instead of corn after soybeans.  But mostly it just hands cash (unjustly, perhaps) to farmers and landowners.  The odds that politicians will stop handing cash to farmers is about as likely as Senator James Inhofe embracing a huge carbon tax.  Not gonna happen.

But don't worry too much.  If food really does get scarce and prices spike, waste will diminish, because poorer hungry people will be less picky about what they eat.

Sorry for being so hard on the foodies.  While hearts and forks are in the right places, obviously I think most everything they say and write is naive.  Still, I think the movement might actually do some good.  I like to see people interested in food and paying more attention to agriculture.  Of course I like all the good eats.  And I think there are some almost reasonable things being said about what's healthy and not (sugar and too much red meat are bad), even if what's healthy has little to do with any coherent strategy for improving environmental quality or feeding the world.  

But perhaps the way to change things is to first get everyones' attention, and I think foodies are doing that better than I ever could.


  1. "Put these two things together and, despite our waste, we consume more while spending less on food than any other country. Isn't that a good thing?" -M. Roberts

    Well, I guess so if consuming more food and spending less than any other country is important to you. It seems like a smart alecky comment. What is that supposed to indicate? How exceptional the US is? What about caring most about how nutritious and healthy the food is for you, i.e,, at what cost in terms of how healthy and beneficial the food is, or what growing it does to the environment?

    It seems important to face one fundamental fact. The technology exists to grow enough food so that no one in the world is malnourished or hungry. However, this is a capitalist world and food is grown capitalistically. This means what matters most to capitalist farmers is the food commodity's exchange value (price) not its use value (usefulness). Therefore, if someone doesn't have the money to purchase the food commodity, s/he doesn't receive it.

    1. Anonymous: I'm not trying to be "smart alecky." I'm trying to lay out the essential realities that need to be dealt with if you really want to solve a problem. Step one is correctly defining the problem. If you want to get more and better quality food into the mouths of poorest people, then that should be focus. Lambasting food waste doesn't help. It might help to see food waste as a potential opportunity: some inexpensive food that might be beneficially redirected. People do this. Maybe we could do a little more of it. But this isn't how discussions about the issue go.

  2. Anonymous,
    If it is all due to capitalism, then enlighten us about the abundant nutritious foods under Stalin and Mao. No it can't be due to corrupt politicians can it? It's all those darn capitalist farmers.

    1. I argued there's enough food produced to eliminate hunger and malnutrition if people received it because they're humans but they don't because food is a capitalistically produced commodity and if you can't pay for it you don't receive it.

      Would you like to enumerate the reasons for why you believe this isn't the case rather than dragging red herrings across my comment?

    2. Red herring? You made a claim. The claim is malnutrition and hunger can be eliminated but for capitalism. I gave two counter examples. OK I was a bit snarky but the point is malnutrition and hunger were not eliminated when capitalism was eliminated. In fact under a localized commune system under mao, the level of famine was spectacular. So your claim is false. Look for another root cause.

    3. Two examples don't make an argument. You didn't argue against what I wrote. I wrote nothing about socialism. You have to argue that hunger and malnutrition aren't intrinsic to capitalism, not point out that they occurred in the former Soviet Union.

      Once again, point out that famine occurred in Maoist China isn't evidence that it doesn't occur because of capitalism. Geez!

    4. You made the claim that capitalism is the cause. So the burden of proof is on you not for me to proof that it's false. You don't like it? Study some rules of logic. Shifting the burden of proof is both a logical fallacy and just plain underhanded.

      And in your latest round of obfuscation, you are changing your argument. It's hard to deal with someone that presents a moving target.

    5. You're done. You don't want to argue against my point that capitalism's normal, profitable operation causes hunger and malnutrition. You avoid the issue by changing the subject. I'm staying on point.

    6. Would it be too painfully obvious and redundant to note that hunger happens writ large under both pure capitalism and pure socialism?

    7. Would it be painfully obvious to all but the most superficial observer that there's no such thing as "pure capitalism"?

    8. Yes Michael, I agree. But anonymous here wants to reduce the world down to a simple "it's captalist" farmers fault." The world is a complicated place. If he or she had started there and with a little humility, I would have cut him/her more slack. People with simple explanations and black and white views of the world are generally the most dangerous.

      And for the record, I buy mostly local/organic foods. I am like you Michael.....I do it because I like good food, I have the income, and food in the U.S. is cheap relative to income. And I also agree with you that local organic farming will not solve the world's hunger problems. Great post.

  3. If food in the U.S. is so plentiful and inexpensive to produce (and contributing to so much waste), then why are prices always rising?

    BLS: "The index for all items LESS food and energy was unchanged in December, following a 0.2 percent increase in October and a 0.1 percent rise in November. "

    USDA: "The Consumer Price Index (CPI) for food is a component of the all-items CPI. The all-items CPI measures price changes for all consumer goods and services, including food, whereas the CPI for food measures the changes in the retail prices of food items only. "

    1. Bud, I think you need to look at a longer history. Yes, food and energy prices are more volatile than the CPI, and in very recent years we've seen a little price growth relative to everything else. But compare food prices here to the rest of the world, and look at the long run trend, and you will find food prices have fallen precipitously relative to incomes.

      See Paul Krugman about cherry picking inflation numbers. Analogous arguments follow here.

      Oh, and the CPI is famous for underestimating quality improvements. I, for one, am grateful for the incredible variety and quality of produce they have in the grocery store today as compared to what I grew up with. Do you remember what grocery stores looked like 30 years ago? Apple choices were golden delicious or red delicious. They were small, with a spongy over-sweet mouth feel, and often half rotten. The only choice for lettuce was iceberg.

      Of course, my high minded concerns don't have anything to do with feeding the world's masses.

  4. Is food waste actually about the producers throwing out stuff that isn't of high enough quality to go to market? I didn't know that. I had always assumed it was lots of people like me who shopped weekly and then didn't use everything and had to empty out the contents of what we referred to affectionately as "the rotter" but is generally known as the crisper drawer in the fridge. I started shopping daily for all fresh food and my food waste is pretty much down to zero. But from what you're saying, I can't take much comfort from this because the waste is not happening with consumers.

    1. Susan, please look at the links. There's a nice article by Brad Plummer that details on the different sources of waste. What your thinking of is some of it. But I gather some wouldn't be so wasteful if food comprised half their income, which is typical for the world's poorest.

      If food is cheap enough, you have an incentive to overstock, so you're more likely to have what you want when you want it, at the cost of wasting some.

      Note that your choice to shop every day is also costly. But also very healthy! My general sense is that the food movement is much more about eating healthy and enjoying high-quality food than it is about sustainability or feeding the world.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. It's a little worse than put. Opposition to GMOs will just increase the cost of adjusting to ACC. And a lot more could be done to permit trading of water rights in the West.

  6. I would argue that food waste itself IS an externality when it's piled up in landfills leaking methane gases. My understanding is that when food waste is mixed under tons of other junk and therefore has limited oxygen, it can't break down and return its nutrients to the soil, and ends up releasing lots of methane. Methane, as you know, is a powerful greenhouse gas that's causing climate change. The soil everywhere gets depleted since it can't get those nutrients. Getting rid of food waste (or composting it) for its own sake seems a worthy endeavor.


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