We All Love Food. So Why Do We Waste So Much Of It?
Updated: Mar 25, 2021
Two converging socio-economic phenomena have shaped the nature of 21st century food wastage: having surplus food for all – for the first time in human history – and the lack of a social taboo on wasting food.
In the United States, 40 percent of all food produced annually is wasted. Globally, this figure hovers around 30 percent. That’s the equivalent of going to a supermarket, buying five bags of groceries, dropping two bags on the street, and never bothering to pick them up. We all love food. So why do we waste so much of it?
Food wastage in the 21st century is partly the result of convenience. We are all living in a world where we produce more food than we require to feed all people for the first time in human history. While the human population is touching 8 billion, the world can feed 10 billion people. With innovations in agriculture – such as fertilizers, irrigation, the tractor – we are equipped to feed a surplus of 2.3 billion people -- a feat our ancestors, especially Thomas Malthus, thought impossible.
Pinpointing specific fault lines in food wastage is difficult because the problem is systemically scattered along entire supply and demand chains. However, we can begin by understanding the supermarket’s fault line. The last time I went to Trader Joe’s (a popular supermarket in Boston), I took some time simply looking at the fruit and vegetable aisle. Entire stands of individual fruits and vegetables huddled together, looking symmetrical, neat, and uniformly colored. The perfection of their presentation made me think of Victorian art paintings. In these paintings, luscious fruit baskets looked like they had been sent down to earth from the heavens by none other than God Himself. This particular Trader Joe's aisle looked ideal because it was meant to look that way: perfect. Supermarkets only display the juiciest, pulpiest, biggest, and most colorful fruits and vegetables, attempting to attract potential buyers the same way people may choose to buy the cutest puppy from a larger litter at the pet store.
Supermarkets, like pet stores, develop pre-existing metrics to stock and display fruits and vegetables. Parameters vary, such as the diameter of a banana, the “ovalness” of a mango, or how red a red apple should be. Completely edible food with only minute blemishes (a dark spot on a pear or a misshaped zucchini), fit and healthy for human consumption, are not displayed because they may dissuade potential customers from purchasing the item. Some supermarkets have laudably chosen to donate their rejected fruits and vegetables to food banks. However, most food banks do not have the storage or refrigeration space to accept food donations, re-routing the food to the county landfill.
However, what good are the advances we have made in agricultural innovation if we throw away almost half of what we produce despite billions of people continuing to live in a state of food insecurity. Surely, this contradiction alone should provide a greater impetus for reducing food wastage. But it doesn't; the lack of an impetus to reduce food waste largely stems from the fact that food wastage is not considered a social taboo in most cultures around the world.
Food wastage is arguably one of the last environmental ills people can socially get away with. Litter in the streets? Finable. Using a plastic straw? Frowned upon. Leave the tap running as you brush your teeth? Not okay. But leave food on your plate and throw it away? It sounds like you had a hearty meal and are taking steps to avoid a food coma. Food wastage is not only widespread, but it is condoned.
The last time Americans lived through a social taboo on food waste was during World War II. The reasons are obvious enough: in a moment of crisis and war, food needed to be rationed to ensure the war front had adequate supplies. However, what we fail to understand is that this crisis is still an ongoing reality for billions of people. Wouldn't someone struggling to secure their next meal question the justice of upholding the social taboo on food wastage for soldiers but not for billions of food insecure people like them?
Why did this social taboo end? Sociologists have tried to understand how norms emerge and fall for centuries. One theory, posited by sociologist James Coleman, explains that norms emerge when two requirements are taken together: (1) externalities of an action and (2) the demand for a new norm. Externalities are effects on third parties because of an action. They can be positive, such as removing snow from a sidewalk, or negative, such as passive smoking. Since externalities affect third parties, who may not have control of the original action leading to the externality, the third parties demand a new norm.
Food wastage inherently creates negative externalities. However, these externalities are not readily visible because they most potently impact the environment. The vast majority of food is not combusted in an environmentally friendly way. For instance, if you throw an apple on the forest floor (you shouldn’t), the apple will, eventually, decompose naturally with the surrounding air into the soil, providing its nutrients. However, 97% of the food wasted in America goes to landfills or incinerators. In 2018, that amounted to over 60 million tons of wasted food in the United States. This food wastage impacts global warming levels because decomposing food rotting away in a landfill is not biodegradable. When food is aggregated and decomposed without air in a landfill, it creates large amounts of methane, which absorbs heat at a rate of 20 compared to carbon dioxide, leading to global warming. This externality impacts us all, some more disproportionately, as the world will heat up.
The other externality is the nexus between energy and food. If we look at the earth's surface land from space, we will mostly find fields used in one way or the other to produce food. These fields have to be sown, watered, and plowed to grow crops. Wasting almost 50% of food produced is the equivalent of wasting 50% of all energy requirements that went into the complete harvest. This includes, but is not limited to, water, fertilizers, and land cultivation. The energy wasted in the food is arguably more gratuitous. According to a study, 2% of the United States’ energy consumption is embedded in the food they toss. That’s enough energy to power Switzerland for a year.
Wasting almost 50% of food produced is the equivalent of wasting 50% of all energy requirements that went into the complete harvest. This includes, but is not limited to, water, fertilizers, and land cultivation. The energy wasted in the food is arguably more gratuitous. According to a study, 2% of the United States’ energy consumption is embedded in the food they toss. That’s enough energy to power Switzerland for a year.
Water is also wasted along with food. The water embedded in the food the world wastes could meet the needs of over 500 million people. Another way to think of this is that each wasted hamburger uses enough water for a 90-minute shower.
Only when these externalities from wasted food are apparent will the demand for a new social norm emerge. There are several steps readers can take to play their part. First, understand that wasting food has externalities for the world, and in more significant proportions than may be known. Second, plan a food menu before each trip to the supermarket, so it's easier to keep track of when vegetables, fruits, and other perishables need to be eaten throughout the week. Third, pay special attention to the date-labels on foodstuff; there is a difference between “sell by” and “best by.” Fourth, consider donating to NGOs like Million Meals Mission as we play our part in alleviating global food insecurity and others that work directly in the supply chain to reduce food wastage.
Finally, when in doubt, always follow grandma’s advice: eat your leftovers.
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