Left-Wing Think Tank “United States Department of Agriculture” Concludes Capitalism Is The Cause of Food Waste

Nicholas Kristof has recently informed me that most of what I do is relatively useless, and that the only solution is to blog more (tweets are cool too). Ever since he opened my eyes to the fact that half of the world’s population has two X chromosomes, I’ve hung on his every word, so here goes.

That said, although he thinks sociologists are irrelevant because of their left-leaning (reality-leaning?) biases, I believe I can make a contribution through a somewhat different tactic. In particular: you wouldn’t know it (because of all the jargon we use!) but social movement scholars have identified a “radical flank effect” by which reformist, mainstream movements are helped by lunatics on the fringes who say crazy shit and thus make aforementioned movements seem less threatening and therefore more likely to win concessions.

A few weeks ago, the USDA released a major new study quantifying “food waste” (well, technically “food loss”*) in America. It’s the first since 1997, which suggests that the issue is gaining some momentum, or that I’m deluding myself into thinking that other people care about the things I care about. Over at “Wasted Food“, Jonathan Bloom – the U.S.’s leading public intellectual on this issue – has some well-reasoned analysis. In the spirit of “radical flank effects”, though, I’m going to drop some completely unpalatable and politically DOA thoughts in the hope that they will help the well-reasoned efforts of others to move forward. Somehow.

What the Report Says

  • About 31% of the food available at retail level doesn’t get eaten, which totals to some bad-shit high figure like 133 billion pounds per year or 429 pounds per person. The important thing to note here is that this is readily acknowledged as a massive underestimate. It ignores crops that never get harvested because of low prices (~10% by some estimates), produce culled for aesthetic or cosmetic reasons (up to 50% depending on the product), or losses in processing or manufacturing (which, as documented by Tristram Stuart, are both huge and deliberately imposed on processors by powerful supermarket chains). It’s also an underestimate even within the report’s authors’ own ambit, since, as they note, their numbers suggest that more food gets eaten than is humanly possible (obesity epidemic notwithstanding). And it doesn’t include food that could feed humans, but which we instead feed to animals, that in turn is converted to a smaller number of calories of meat. You can debate whether this constitutes “waste”, but insofar as the food system exists to feed people (it doesn’t, really), it’s not a particularly efficient way of doing it, so it’s waste in my book blog.
  • The food losses that get counted in the report sum up to about 141 trillion calories per year. This is a fun and media-friendly figure because it’s unfathomably large and implies something about hungry people in Africa. It’s also really, really meaningless. If you  look at calories, about half of the “food” we “lose” consists of added fats and sweeteners, which raises some questions about the meaning of “loss” and, dare I say, “food”. Moreover, it perpetuates the myth that the solution to food waste and hunger is to have someone standing by the bin / dumpster / household trash receptacle capturing whatever is left and giving it to the homeless person down the street. It’s a good way to get kids to eat leftovers but, as I learned at the food bank, the relationship between what gets thrown out and what is needed is a weak one and moving calories around is not the way you address hunger.
  • The total “value” of food waste is $161.6 billion. Of course, the “cost” of food waste is best measured in lost water, land, or labor. But even if we decide to attach a dollar figure to waste, we need to really ask ourselves who, exactly, bears the “cost” and why exactly it counts as a “cost” in the first place. As I’ve ranted previously, it’s no skin off Monsanto’s back if the seeds it sells don’t actually grow food to feed people. And it’s great news for farmers if distributors are purchasing 3,796 kcal/day from them, even if the average person (factoring in the elderly and children) only needs 1,900. And, to offer my favorite example (I think I’m showing my class background here…), grocery stores love it that you have to buy a big-ass bunch of cilantro that you can’t possible use, because they can sell it for more than a small-ass bunch of cilantro. As far as I can tell, waste keeps the dollars flowing and the economy humming. If that’s what you care about, throwing food out is not much of a waste at all.

The Unhappy Conclusion

At this point, I’m fairly used to meaningless platitudes about how reducing food waste is a quick fix to the global food system. To its credit, the USDA report has a healthily realistic take on possibilities for major reductions in food waste. Quoting an older report from the General Accounting Office, they observe:

From a business standpoint, the value of food product saved for human use should be equal to, or greater than, the cost of saving it. To the extent that the costs exceed value, good business judgment dictates that the loss is an acceptable cost. In the course of preparing this report, no material has been found that would indicate that opportunities were knowingly overlooked by business owners to conserve food at an acceptable cost. The profit motive should dictate against such loss.

Long and the short of it: food waste happens because a business model that involves wasting food (through cosmetic standards, pre-packaged perishables, and rampant overproduction to avoid missing any sales) is more profitable than one that doesn’t involve wasting food. Capitalist firms waste food because they are doing their job: creating “value” not in the forms of meals or satisfied stomachs, but shareholder returns.

Bloom and his U.K. compatriot Tristram Stuart both write that reducing food waste is a “triple bottom line” solution that can feed people, protect the environment, and raise profits. But they need to give capitalism a bit more credit. If there were money to be made from reducing food waste, the thousands upon thousands of managers, engineers, and technicians whose livelihoods depend on squeezing every possible penny out of our food system would have found them long ago.

An Attempt to be Constructive

Okay, so revolution or nothing, right? It’d be a cheap way to end this post, so I’ll make an effort to be a bit less nihilistic. Even if we accept that “capitalism” is going to be our economic model for the foreseeable future, we can still acknowledge that solutions to problems within that system can come from outside of it. That is to say, the market doesn’t fix itself: people organized into networks, organizations, and movements do. So, since I’ve never bothered articulating what I actually think should be done about food waste, I’ll make a quick attempt to articulate a program that’s serious about reducing food waste without turning it into a band-aid that distracts us from the myriad other problems with our food system:

  • Reform Agricultural Subsidies. This one is obvious but not really being discussed by anyone talking about food waste. Crop insurance programs, as they currently exist, allow farmers to plant with almost zero financial risk without any regard for the market for the food-like substances they produce. Given that, despite our dire financial straits, we’ve somehow found $240 billion to spend mostly on subsidizing corn and soy to feed cows and displace Mexican peasants in the last decade, it seems completely reasonable that we could use subsidies to make organic, local, and ethical food cheap and available. More localized systems could go a long way in reducing waste.
  • Introduce Painfully High Landfilling Taxes. The E.U. has already done this, and many are crediting the E.U. landfilling directive with sparking new interest in food waste reduction initiatives and donations. And hey, maybe as an after effect, it would discourage stores from marching along with the worldwide trend towards locking and or poisoning their dumpsters, since scavengers are – in the end – only leaving them a bit lighter. But, crucially, landfilling taxes have to be coupled with bans on shoving food waste onto others – like, for example, our food bank which threw out WalMart’s surfeit of cakes for them.
  • De-Commodify Food. Food is a stupid thing to treat as a commodity. Demand for it is inelastic (you can only eat so much of it) and you can’t substitute it for other goods (because, well, you die if you don’t have it). So it doesn’t really work in a growth-based, capitalist economic model, unless you find dumb other things to do with ever-increasing food production, like converting it into bio-fuels or introducing “anaerobic digestion” (which creates demand for food waste, which is also, well, stupid). This is fairly off the deep end politically, but it’s not utopian: as the great E.P. Thompson documents, even in early capitalist England, people still saw food suppliers (mostly bakers) as public servants who worked for a fair allowance, not a profit. Our notion of food as a commodity is uniquely modern, utterly moronic, and the root of contemporary food waste. With all the talk on the left about a “universal basic income”, maybe we should start with “universal foodstamps”?

Note the absence of calls for greater consumer awareness, “voting with your dollar”, and/or learning to eat your leftovers. These sorts of reforms – the targets of most campaigns – are good, but when you look at the size and power of the interests behind food waste, relying on individual, atomized consumers to change things is bringing a spork to a gunfight.

– – – – –

* The difference stems from whether you include “loss” from shrinkage, pests, peels, etc. versus “waste”, which goes unconsumed because of human action.

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6 thoughts on “Left-Wing Think Tank “United States Department of Agriculture” Concludes Capitalism Is The Cause of Food Waste

  1. Great essay, Alex. Relaying via FaceBook & Twitter. Keep writing. Accessible, sensible, totally contrarian post, that needs to be pushed until people stop going “he’s nuts, and dangerous!” and start going “holy crap, he’s right!”

  2. I love this piece Alex!! The line ” If there were money to be made from reducing food waste, the thousands upon thousands of managers, engineers, and technicians whose livelihoods depend on squeezing every possible penny out of our food system would have found them long ago” really sticks out to me. Is it fair to say, though, that your first two short-of-revolution solutions are about realigning incentive structures to increase the efficacy of “triple bottom line solutions”?

    I also liked what you said about the inadequacies of consumer choice-oriented activism. Do you place Freeganism in this same category?

    1. Manuel – thanks for reading (I know how busy you are, it’s very kind!) That’s a good point about the solutions being basically “triple bottom line” kind of solutions. It’s hard to figure out where to put the emphasis – on the “we need to overthrow capitalism” or the “we need to make capitalism work better” sets of strategies.
      In terms of consumer activism… I don’t know if I’ve figured out yet where freeganism is in relation to it. In a sense, freeganism is a form of consumer activism that parodies and negates consumer activism, insofar as it shows why consumer activism is fruitless. But, as I’ve discovered in my recent dumpster-diving gluttony, freeganism enables consumerism in a weird way.

  3. I’m not sure what you mean by de-commodify food. It seems your starting intuition is a concern about overproduction, to which a solution might be lower public subsidy for already over-produced crops, but you end with a recommendation for public welfare, which doesn’t de-commodify the items purchased in the sense that I understand the term.

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