23 January 2016

Waste Not

Collectively, people waste nearly 50% of global food — and in the US and Canada alone, we're wasting $6,000 worth of food every second. 
Canada-based filmmakers Grant Baldwin and Jen Rustemeyer wanted to find out how much of that food is still good, and if they could eat it, so they came up with a challenge: to survive on food waste for six months. 
"We went cold-turkey," they told NPR on a recent podcast. "We said we're going to consume only food that is destined for the trash or already in it. So we could pay for it, but we found that most places would not sell us dated food." 
After six months of dumpster diving and searching behind wholesale warehouses, they managed to rescue over $20,000 worth of food — and spent a scant $200 on groceries.
Bitching about waste is overrated.  Especially when waste involves food.

Much like the like the “crops rotting in fields” stories, this kvetching is quite annoying.  For starters, no system is perfectly efficient, so some tolerance for waste has to be factored in.  Quite simply, it’s impossible to anticipate how much food will be eaten by a particular number of people at a particular moment in time.  Assuming the option is cost-effective, it’s better to prepare too much than too little, even if the overage is discarded as waste, simply because foregone profits typically outweigh discarded inventory.

Moreover, what’s often ignored in this sort of analysis is the waste of an even scarcer resource: time.  Scavenging for food and arguing with warehouse managers is more time-consuming than just buying groceries like a normal person.  It’s not as if there isn’t an overabundance of food in most modern countries.  That being the case, it’s far better to waste food and save time for the important things in life.  The entire point of modernization and industrialization is to reduce the amount of time it takes to acquire life’s necessities, so it really is backwards to not take advantage of one of the main thrusts of modern civilization.

While I’m on the subject, spare me the rejoinders about starving children in Africa.  First off, the biggest problem Africa faces is cultural.  It’s hard for a modern economy to take hold when the conception of property rights hardly exists and tribalistic warfare is the order of the day.  Being unable to protect one’s property from both government seizure and martial destruction is a recipe for disincentivizing economic progress.

Second, shipping waste food from modern nations to African nations won’t do much to solve the problem of starvation because the lack of infrastructure throughout the continent makes it difficult, if not often impossible, to get leftovers to starving people while said leftovers still have some residual nutritional value.  Of course, if solving the infrastructure problem is predicated on more or less modernizing the African economy, which would also solve the starvation problem.  Basically, the reason Africans are starving isn’t because Westerners are wasting food, but because Africans refuse to modernize.

Really, there is no reason to worry about wasting food.  Wasting time is worse, and scavenging food doesn’t actually do a damn thing for those living in a dysfunctional culture half the world away.


  1. Wilbur Hassenfus23 January, 2016 01:32

    Overpopulation is not the least of Africa's problems, right?

    But we're supposed to ship every spare scrap of food to Africa, until there are so many Africans that even with all our leftovers, they still can't be fed. And then what? Move them all to California and the Midwest, I suppose, and let them take over our farming. That'll fix the population problem in a hurry.


    In reality of course, if we stopped wasting food, we'd simply produce less.

    1. Overpopulation isn't really the issue. The real issue is a lack of economic self-sufficiency. They cannot provide for their own. One solution to this issue is to let nature run its course. The other is to alter the culture such that it is able to accommodate mass production. I favor altering the culture, of course, but alas I'm not in charge of such decisions.

    2. Wilbur Hassenfus24 January, 2016 21:50

      Unfortunately, it looks a lot like there may be more to it than culture.