Waste Not, Want Not?

A small child, having eaten the tastier offerings on his plate, picks unenthusiastically at his vegetables. An exasperated parent tells him that he should eat his food because there are starving people in China.* The child points out that there is no way anyone can transport his broccoli to China, and thus his decision is not really related to world hunger.

Just last week, the UN Food and Agriculture Association released a report stating that “Latin America and the Caribbean Could Eradicate Hunger with Amount of Food Lost and Wasted.” Usually I don’t bother writing blog posts to pick holes in an argument that a truculent four-year-old could identify. Yet because commentators persist in not just seeing a connection between food waste and hunger, but asserting that in addressing one we could address the other, I feel the need to extent the pre-schooler’s logic a bit.

The argument that we could address hunger by directly redistributing wasted food crumples with a whiff of logic and data. For starters, what gets thrown out is not what people need: in the U.S., nearly fifty percent of discarded calories are added sweeteners and fats. The model of food banks which the FAO trumpets for Latin America has been developed to its zenith in the U.S.—and yet hunger has actually grown since the explosion of private charity in the 1980s. The recent National Geographic feature on hunger inadvertently offers a pretty damning portrait:

By whatever name, the number of people going hungry has grown dramatically in the U.S., increasing to 48 million by 2012—a fivefold jump since the late 1960s, including an increase of 57 percent since the late 1990s. Privately run programs like food pantries and soup kitchens have mushroomed too. In 1980 there were a few hundred emergency food programs across the country; today there are 50,000…One in six reports running out of food at least once a year. In many European countries, by contrast, the number is closer to one in 20.

Food banks are a terrible way to address hunger because, as sociologist Janet Poppendieck documents, the food they offer is often insufficient, culturally inappropriate, nutritionally inadequate, unreliable, and heavily stigmatized. Flooding food banks with the subsidized corn-and-sugar-based “edible food-like substances” will not change this.

The more sophisticated commentators—like Tristram Stuart—accept that food waste does not directly snatch food from the mouths of the hungry, but claim that it still indirectly causes food insecurity by raising global prices. This, at least, squares with the basics of economic research on hunger and famine: that poor people do not go hungry for lack of food but for lack of money to buy food. One in six Americans is not going hungry because they walk into a grocery store and find the shelves unstocked; it’s their pockets that are empty. Hypothetically, if all the food currently going to waste were instead put on supermarket shelves, the supply would be so huge (since the world produces 4,600 kcal/person/day) that prices would plummet, and the poor could eat. Huzzah!

Of course, basic micro-economics also tells us that if the price plummets, so does production. It is a common trope that food waste happens because food is too cheap; yet, in truth, the overproduction behind food waste—and the overproduction that would underpin any redistributive scheme—actually depends on the artificially high price of food. If producers, distributors, and retailers could no longer pass the cost of waste onto consumers by inflating the price of what they sell, they would simply produce less. Adam Przeworski plays this thought experiment out and convincingly shows that there is no scenario under which we could feed everyone through a free market mechanism, and that feeding everyone would invariably undermine the free market.

Thrift non-wasting practices, eating your leftovers, faith in God, volunteerism and charity, and unbridled free markets do not feed people. Adult discussions should start from the premise that there are two basic ways to address hunger. One is to increase the purchasing power of the poor to buy commodified food. We already do this, to an extent, with food stamps, but do so by reinforcing an unjust private food system (and subsidizing retailers like Wal-Mart, which pay their workers so little they qualify for SNAP). The alternative is to de-commodify food—that is, create a right to food not dependent on individual’s capacity to pay or participation in the labor market. This has been tried in socialist countries and, more recently, in India. History suggests that it may help feed people, but at the cost of inefficiencies and the loss of the abundance, excessive choice, and convenience that a capitalist food system gives (some of) us.

“Food waste” is a powerful symbol of the dysfunction of our food system, and the coexistence of hunger and waste is as visceral a reminder as any of the insanity of free-market capitalism. But as a kind of “slack” which we could use to eradicate hunger, minimize our ecological footprint, and address socioeconomic inequality? Well, sometimes waste really is just garbage.

* I don’t know why it was always China for me. China ranks 42nd in food security. Better to say “Democratic Republic of the Congo,” or the post-industrial neighborhood by your suburb.

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