Thursday, September 6, 2012

In Defence of Wasted Food

There was a CNN article on Hacker News recently complaining about the amount of wasted food in America today.
Forty percent of food in the United States is never eaten, amounting to $165 billion a year in waste, taking a toll on the country's water resources and significantly increasing greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council released this week.
The group says more than 20 pounds of food is wasted each month for each of 311 million Americans, amounting to $1,350 to $2,275 annually in waste for a family of four.
While wasted food is certainly not aesthetically satisfying, I find myself somewhat in the minority by viewing this as rather cheerful news. 

The main reason is that this is a huge celebratory victory lap in the quest of human beings to overcome what was the central problem of their existence from roughly 1 million B.C. until about 1950-ish: namely how to secure enough calories to stay alive.

Doubt not this fact - people waste food only because they know that there's plenty more where it came from. If there were some enormous, prolonged civil emergency in America where the food supply became insecure and sporadic, you can bet your bottom dollar that hungry people would very quickly revert to eating everything still in their refrigerator, tasty or not, out of expiry code or not. 

The definition of "wasted food", or even "food" in general, is something that varies with how desperate the economic condition is. There's a reason that people eat brains, kidneys, tripe, etc. in much smaller quantities than they used to. You know why? Because back then, meat was so scarce that you had to eat the whole animal. But now, cheeseburgers are delicious and cheap. If you go back to, say, the Battle of Stalingrad, people got so hungry that they would eat literally anything that contained a calorie. They would boil old leather boots - leather is skin, and has calories. Lipstick, made from animal fat, became a dessert. Even those bemoaning food wastage probably don't boil their shoes when they've worn through them.

The other problem with this view of the world is that it ignores the fact that food has a significant option value. When I do the shopping, I don't know exactly how many times I'm going to be eating at home in any given week. Maybe dinner plans will come up, and I'll go out. Maybe I'll have a big lunch and not be hungry. Maybe I'll just not feel like cooking.

When I'm buying food with a short expiry date, I'm buying the option of eating it later. The nature of options is that they sometimes expire unused. This doesn't mean the option wasn't worth something, it just means that something better came along. 

The types of foods that tend to have short expiry dates (and thus are more likely to be wasted) are fresh foods - fruit and vegetables, milk, meat, cheese. If all you eat is baked beans and spam, you'll probably have not much wasted food. But you'll be eating less healthily. I imagine that wasted food is probably also correlated with aspirations (unsuccessful, perhaps) towards healthy eating. You buy the broccoli thinking that you'll eat it. Maybe you go for a hot dog instead - hyperbolic discounting springs eternal. But if you never bought the broccoli, you would have eaten the hot dog with certainty.

I figure you always want to keep an eye on what the counterfactual is. Wasted food is generally fresh food. It would be nice if the counterfactual were more efficient consumption of fresh food. But it's probably just more processed food instead. Be careful what you wish for.

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