The Limits of Think.Eat.Save

There has been an extraordinary amount of media attention and policy action around food waste lately.  Major environmental groups like NRDC and totally not-at-all environmental groups like the Institution for Mechanical Engineering have released reports documenting how 30-50% of food is wasted in the US and abroad.  While reports from non-profits on some issue or another are nothing to get excited about, governments ranging from the City of Austin to the EU have introduced initiatives to curb food waste.  Most recently, the UN brought us “Think.Eat.Save.”

After years of listening freegans calling out from the wilderness of late-night dumpster dives, it’s great to hear that this is an issue that is getting some attention.  Industrial food production places huge strains on the environment, and wasted food means that much of that strain is wholly unnecessary.  To offer one of a barrage of possible statistics: 25% of freshwater and 4% of the oil used in the US goes to produce food that doesn’t actually get eaten.

As I see it, the only problem with preventing food waste is that it’s bad for the economy.

I’d love to have this picked apart, but it seems straightforward.  When Monsanto sells seeds to a farmer for a crop that will never be harvested, they make money.  So, too, does the farmer who sells produce that a processing plant will reject because it doesn’t meet their (absurd) aesthetic standards.  And it’s good news for the distributor when retailers are forced to buy in bulk – despite an inability to sell the entire product – to get lower prices.  Those grocery stores’ balance sheets, too, look better when they sell food in packages so large that no one could eat it all (cilantro, anyone?).  The consumer pays for all this waste in the end through higher prices—purchasing the commodities they use as well as the commodities destroyed along the way.

The U.S. agricultural system produces upwards of 3,700 calories per person, per day.  Our efforts to achieve Type-3 diabetes notwithstanding (cf. Steven Colbert), we aren’t going to eat all those calories.  There isn’t a lot to do with that excess.  You could dump it on developing countries (bad), or you could turn it into bio-fuels (also bad).  Barring that, it will go to waste—somewhere—irrespective of individual good intentions.  And all that production, the money that changed hands, the goods that got sold and then got discarded—they will count in GDP figures all the same.  “The economy”, that abstract idol to which we sacrifice much-needed social programs, the well-being of workers, and the future habitability of our planet, likes waste.

Yes, there are some individual strategies we can take to reduce food waste, and they may make the economy more efficient and more sustainable.  The campaigns against food waste are, in my eyes, positive – and unequivocally so.  But if we really care about food waste, we need to start to talk about reducing production.  And when you propose reducing the size of a sector worth $1.8 trillion and employing 1/6th of the US population, you’re starting to question  the imperative of unlimited growth and expansion, and asserting that there is perhaps something more important than “the economy”.  Once you’re there, you’re taking—as one of my favorite friends from put it—“a long, hard look at capitalism” itself.

Maybe the UN secretly wants us to have that conversation.  I hope so.

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