I hate to see food wasted. I really, really hate it. I will try and eat everything in the fridge, even if I don’t like it, if the alternative is throwing it away. I will cut out the bits of food that are spoiled and eat the rest. It is not that I am cheap. It is just that I think that throwing food away should be the absolute last resort. It really bothers me that so much food is wasted in the US. Part of it is due to the sheer size and complexity of the food distribution system in which the producer and consumer are separated by such vast distances that some wastage is inevitable in storage and transportation. This is perhaps understandable as an unavoidable consequence of creating complex societies.
What bothers me more is the wastage of food that is avoidable and I will list the many ways it happens in increasing order of seriousness.
- A lot of food is thrown away by food stores simply because it does not look good, such as fruits that are slightly bruised, even though they are perfectly good to eat. We have got used to thinking that every apple and pear must be unblemished because that is how they are displayed in stores, presumably because the workers systematically remove even the slightly ‘unsightly’ ones from the racks. Why don’t they follow the policy of some clothing stores where they have racks of slightly defective clothes at lower prices and have a section of the store where slightly imperfect food is sold at a discounted rate rather than being thrown away? One sees this sometimes in the meat racks where prices are lowered if the expiry date is near.
- Then there is the deliberate and gratuitous waste of food. One form of this that irks me are those food eating contests, where people compete to see who can eat the most hot dogs or hamburgers and the like in a limited time. It is nauseating to watch people cramming food into their mouths when they are not hungry.
- Another thing that I find peculiar are those buffets that are promoted as ‘all you can eat’. I can understand the idea of a fixed price for a buffet style menu because it is hard to keep track of what people may select and a buffet enables people to sample from a wide range of foods. What bothers me is that some people think that in order to get one’s money’s worth one must stuff oneself to the maximum. Eating when one is not hungry or when it does not give any pleasure seems peculiar. Apparently in Europe such places advertise as ‘all that you care to eat’, which is a slight improvement in encouraging a healthier attitude.
- Even worse is when food is used in non-nutritional ways. One example is butter sculptures. What’s wrong with using sand or clay to demonstrate your sculpting skill? Why butter? Why would you use a perfectly nutritious food that could be eaten by someone? But more scandalous is to use food as fuel. The idea of taking grains that could be converted into food and using it to make ethanol and other fuels strikes me as a terrible idea. Sure the world needs energy but it needs food more. We live in a world where a lot of people are hungry. Food is a precious commodity whose cost is rising rapidly, making it increasingly inaccessible for larger numbers of people. To use it to satiate our hunger for fuel is wrong.
- The absolute worst form of food waste is deliberately destroying it to keep prices high. It used to be the case that the US used to buy grain from farmers and then dump it into the ocean. At one time this caused a scandal and one does not hear about this practice anymore but whether that is because it has stopped or people have got used to it, I don’t know.
I understand the economics of the matter. But in a world in which ‘food insecurity’ (the phenomenon in which people are unsure about their ability to secure food in the future), not to mention outright hunger and starvation, are widespread, the idea of paying people to not grow food, or deliberately destroying it in order to keep prices high strikes me as borderline criminal. Surely we can do better than that.
Samantha Bee had a clip some time ago about this topic. She said that in the US we throw out about one pound of food per person per day. About 43% of that waste is thrown out by us consumers, more than restaurants and grocery stores.
John Oliver also had an old clip where he discussed how the ‘use by’ and ‘sell by’ dates on products can result in a lot of good food being thrown away.