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Dec 13 2006

Saving resources

One of the things that appall me is the waste of food. Whenever I have to throw away food that has been uneaten, I take that as a personal defeat. As a result, the refrigerator in our home is relatively bare since it tends to have things that are likely to be used soon. Even then, I periodically go through the refrigerator and use up everything that is there and only throw stuff away if it is beyond salvaging.

I have the impression that in our highly litigious society, manufacturers have become highly conservative in labeling packages, fearful that they will be sued if someone gets ill. And as a result, the “sell by” dates are likely quite early and a lot of perfectly good food is thrown away unnecessarily because of people adhering strictly to them. It would be interesting to see what kinds of statistics are used to arrive at the “sell by” dates.

The greater waste occurs in supermarkets. Consumers are now so picky and demand such perfection that even slightly bruised fruit or other produce is thrown away by stores, even though it might be perfectly good to eat, because they think that consumers will not buy them. At home, on the other hand, if an apple or banana is bruised I, like many others, simply cut out that part and eat the rest. This is not because we cannot afford to buy more fruit, it is simply that I cannot bear to waste food. It seems criminal to me.

In Sri Lanka when I was growing up, even in the cities vendors of food would sell their wares in small open stalls (like the ones you see in the US along country roads in the summer and fall) and you would haggle with the vendor about the price. If the produce was pristine is quality, you would pay a higher price. The more damaged or older it looked, the less you paid. Anything that was not sold that day or likely to be sold in the future was consumed by the vendor’s family and neighbors. As a result of this system, there was very little waste.

(The haggling over price was a kind of game that was played between vendor and customer and the scene over the purchase of a false beard in the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian accurately captures the spirit of the game. I personally never had the heart to haggle since the vendors were obviously so much poorer than I and I felt that the small amount of money involved meant a lot less to me than to them. Hence I would simply go through the motions of haggling and would end up paying more or less the asking price. While it was more profitable for the vendors to deal with me, I also had the feeling that they thought I was not much fun.)

Food costs a lot in terms of the resources that go into producing it. In his February 2004 Harper’s essay The oil we eat, Richard Manning analyzes the true cost of agriculture. Clearing out vast areas of land to increase agriculture has a cost, all the fertilizer we use to achieve high yields has a cost, and the mechanized planting, harvesting, transport and distribution systems that are used have a cost. The food we get at our stores has used up a lot of resources and it is a scandal how much of it we waste.

David Pimentel, an expert on food and energy at Cornell University, has estimated that if all of the world ate the way the United States eats, humanity would exhaust all known global fossil-fuel reserves in just over seven years. Pimentel has his detractors. Some have accused him of being off on other calculations by as much as 30 percent. Fine. Make it ten years.

This is a question that is looming larger and larger as countries with large populations that were once considered third world, such as China and India, are rapidly becoming industrialized and their populations rate of consumption are rising to first world levels. While we simply cannot go on consuming at the current first world rates, how we resolve this question to achieve a lasting, sustainable, and fair solution is not at all clear.

POST SCRIPT: Picking and choosing from the Bible

Stephen Colbert interviews Francis Collins and the discussion raises the key problem facing those Christians who are not Biblical literalists. (Collins is the head of the human genome project and a practicing Christian and the author of the book The Language of God.)

When Colbert asks him on which of the six days of creation god created DNA, Collins argues that some parts of the Bible are not meant to be taken literally. To which Colbert responds “If you throw out any part of the Bible, you throw out all of it.”

This is why Christian fundamentalists reject the position of those who argue that the Bible should not be taken literally.

2 comments

  1. 1
    A R V I N D H

    At Quiznos they cut the rounded edges off the breads and throw them out in the bin. Now, why could they not make flat edged breads instead?

  2. 2
    Ben

    Aravindhan,

    It’s because they have to waste all that food to justify their exorbitant prices and slow service. After all, making flat-edged bread would be far to economical and logical for such a crappy chain like Quiznos.

    Not to say that their food doesn’t taste good, but the last time I was in there it took them 20 minutes to make my food, and then the soda fountain was out of syrup.

    To Mano’s point though, I think the real solution to all the wasteful consumerism in this country is making it unprofitable to waste. The U.S. economy has always responded well to incentive; hybrid gas-electric vehicles are a great example of that. As soon as government subsidies made them competitive with other cars in their class, Toyota couldn’t sell enough of their Prius to meet the consumer demand…and they still aren’t.

    Along the same vein, look at the Scandinavian-style Socialist States. Taxes on non-essential foods and goods are high enough that a large pizza can cost $60, but internet access and higher education are free to any who want it. Not only have their economies not collapsed, but they live longer and have better infant mortality rates than we do, and all because strict governmental control of resources results in a logical rationing of scarce/expensive goods and services. Everyone gets a slice of the pie, but the slice size varies a little by socioeconomic status. In the U.S., the situation seems to be that one person gets a quarter of the pie, a couple people get small slices, and everyone else gets to forage for whatever the others drop on the ground. Until the guy with the big slice thinks its too expensive to keep to himself, he’ll keep taking and taking, and he’d be a fool not to in a society like ours that praises autonomy and achievement above equity and altruism.

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