A Philosopher's Blog

Food Waste

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on December 24, 2014

“CLEAN YOUR PLATE…THERE’S NO FOOD TO WASTE” – NARA – 516248 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like many Americans my age, I was cajoled by my parents to finish all the food on my plate because people were starving somewhere. When I got a bit older and thought about the matter, I realized that my eating (or not eating) the food on my plate would have no effect on the people starving in some far away part of the world. However, I did internalize two lessons. One was that I should not waste food. The other was that there is always someone starving somewhere.

While food insecurity is a problem in the United States, we Americans waste a great deal of food. It is estimated that about 21% of the food that is harvested and available to be consumed is not consumed. This food includes the unconsumed portions tossed into the trash at restaurants, spoiled tomatoes thrown out by families ($900 million worth), moldy leftovers tossed out when the fridge is cleaned and so on. On average, a family of four wastes about 1,160 pounds of food per year—which is a lot of food.

On the national level, it is estimated that one year of food waste (or loss, if one prefers) uses up 2.5% of the energy consumed in the U.S., about 25% of the fresh water used for agriculture, and about 300 million barrels of oil. The loss, in dollars, is estimated to be $115 billion.

The most obvious moral concern is with the waste. Intuitively, throwing away food and wasting it seems to be wrong—especially (as parents used to say) when people are starving. Of course, as I mentioned above, it is quite reasonable to consider whether or not less waste by Americans would translate into more food for other people.

On the one hand, it might be argued that less wasted food would surely make more food available to those in need. After all, there would be more food.

On the other hand, it seems obvious that less waste would not translate into more food for those who are in need. Going back to my story about cleaning my plate, my eating all the food on my plate would certainly not have helped starving people. After all, the food I eat does not help them. Also, if I did not eat the food, then they would not be harmed—they would not get less food because I threw away my Brussel sprouts.

To use another illustration, suppose that Americans conscientiously only bought the exact number of tomatoes that they would eat and wasted none of them. The most likely response is not that the extra tomatoes would be handed out to the hungry. Rather, farmers would grow less tomatoes and markets would stock less in response to the reduced demand.

For the most part, people go hungry not because Americans are wasting food and thus making it unavailable, but because they cannot afford the food they need. To use a metaphor, it is not that the peasants are starving because the royalty are tossing the food into the trash. It is that the peasants cannot afford the food that is so plentiful that the royalty can toss it away.

It could be countered that less waste would actually influence the affordability of food. Returning to the tomato example, farmers might keep on producing the same volume of tomatoes, but be forced to lower the prices because of lower demand and also to seek new markets.

It can also be countered that as the population of the earth grows, such waste will really matter—that food thrown away by Americans is, in fact, taking food away from people. If food does become increasingly scarce (as some have argued will occur due to changes in climate and population growth), then waste will really matter. This is certainly worth considering.

There is, as mentioned above, the intuition that waste is, well, just wrong. After all, “throwing away” all those resources (energy, water, oil and money) is certainly wasteful. There is, of course, also the obvious practical concern: when people waste food, they are wasting money.

For example, if Sally buys a mega meal and throws half of it in the trash, she would have been better off buying a moderate meal and eating all of it. As another example, Sam is throwing away money if he buys steaks and vegetables, then lets them rot. So, not wasting food would certainly make good economic sense for individuals. It would also make sense for businesses—at least to the degree that they do not profit from the waste.

Interestingly, some businesses do profit from the waste. To be specific, consider the snacks, meats, cheese, beverages and such that are purchased and never consumed. If people did not buy them, this would result in less sales and this would impact the economy all the way from the store to the field. While the exact percentage of food purchased and not consumed is not known, the evidence is that it is significant. So, if people did not overbuy, then the food economy would be reduced that percentage—resulting in reduced profits and reduced employment. As such, food waste might actually be rather important for the American food economy (much as planned obsolescence is important in the tech fields). And, interestingly enough, the greater the waste, the greater its importance in maintaining the food economy.

If this sort of reasoning is good, then it might be immoral to waste less food—after all, a utilitarian argument could be crafted showing that less waste would create more harm than good (putting supermarket workers and farmers out of work, for example). As such, waste might be good. At least in the context of the existing economic system, which might not be so good.



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14 Responses

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  1. TJB said, on December 24, 2014 at 8:59 am

    I think everyone agrees that waste should be minimized. Not everyone, however, agrees on the definition of “waste.” For example, is driving a large SUV “wasteful”? I would argue”no,” but many would disagree.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 24, 2014 at 5:38 pm

      Most vehicles are a waste, at least in terms of the resources expended to move who and what is being transported. Someone who drive around alone in a large SUV is wasting resources. But, as you note, waste can be a relative thing. I think dropping $100,000 on a watch is a waste of money, but some people are cool with that.

  2. nailheadtom said, on December 24, 2014 at 11:18 am

    Tomatoes? Does the human body really require tomatoes? Couldn’t a more nutritious crop be raised in the same place as a tomato? Something with more food value, maybe rutabagas or something? The tomato has negligible food value, as the protests to the suppposed recommendation by Reagan that ketchup be considered a vegetable in school lunches maintained. In moral terms, then, the use of valuable resources to grow tomatoes instead of rutabagas is indeed wasteful.

    • TJB said, on December 24, 2014 at 11:34 am

      Indeed. We should all be eating insects as Mike pointed out previously.

      Perhaps some human lives are wasteful? Do you want to go there, Mike?

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 24, 2014 at 5:42 pm

        I’m fine with eating bugs-if doing so would mean that other people also got to eat.

        Why bring up human lives being wasteful? Do you think that because I express some concerns about food waste that this entails a slide into Nazi ideology?

        • TJB said, on December 25, 2014 at 7:39 am

          Nazis? Where did that come from? I was thinking of Dem darling and feminist icon Margaret Sanger. I guess you know that Sanger was a fervent promoter of eugenics?

          Turns out that Hillary Clinton won the Margaret Sanger award in 2009.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 25, 2014 at 5:43 pm

            I am in favor of voluntary use of birth control. Not in favor of the sort of eugenics pushed by folks like the Nazis.

            • TJB said, on December 25, 2014 at 6:08 pm

              Margaret Sanger:

              The third group [of society] are those irresponsible and reckless ones having little regard for the consequences of their acts, or whose religious scruples prevent their exercising control over their numbers. Many of this group are diseased, feeble-minded, and are of the pauper element dependent upon the normal and fit members of society for their support. There is no doubt in the minds of all thinking people that the procreation of this group should be stopped.


              Did I mention that Hillary Clinton won the Margaret Sanger award in 2009?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 26, 2014 at 11:16 am

              Hmm, if Sanger was alive today, she could do a segment for Fox’s Entitlement Nation: Makers vs. Takers. It is interesting how the right and the left often end up in similar places. One of my poli sci professors made the point that the political line is really a circle: go far enough left and you reach the right. And vice versa.

              I’m not for using state force to prevent people from procreating. I don’t think poverty is solved by preventing reproduction. Rather, prosperity tends to reduce populations voluntarily. When people have better health care and better opportunities, they tend to have smaller families-at least that has been the trend.

              She only won it once? Surely she deserved it every year.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 24, 2014 at 5:40 pm

      Tomatoes are actually quite nutritious. Ketchup, however, is not so great-especially with all that high fructose corn syrup.

  3. ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 24, 2014 at 4:29 pm

    Our society is FAR LESS wasteful today than it’s ever been. Every major city has an organization that gathers up leftover food from restaurants, which they use to feed the homeless. Many restaurants go out of their way to make sure their leftovers aren’t wasted. One of the best in this regard is Panera Bread.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 24, 2014 at 5:44 pm

      Yes, it is worth acknowledging that there are people doing a lot to reduce waste, which is good. In part, my dislike of waste is psychological-that frugal Yankee upbringing.

  4. nailheadtom said, on December 25, 2014 at 10:11 pm

    In reality, “waste” is a concept that can only involve human beings. If an aged moose dies alone in the woods, his carcass is consumed over a period of time by scavengers, insects and bacteria who eventually return to the earth as well, completing a cycle that began with sprouting seeds. This occurs with inorganic substances as well, all iron and steel will someday become ferrous oxide, essentially iron ore. Since humans are competitive with other organisms for nourishment and use some of those organisms for nourishment themselves, we feel that non-human exploitation of resources is waste. This is very anthropocentric. Aside from that, why should one human value the continued existence of a distant human stranger over a local non-human scavenger? I don’t know any people in China, they’re basically an abstraction to me. I’m more interested in the well-being of the local raccoons than some resident of a Shanghai suburb that I’ll never meet. So it might make more sense to me to put my left-overs in the alley where Rocky can eat them since the guy standing on the corner with the cardboard sign that says “Homeless, Need Help, God Bless” probably doesn’t want my uneaten corn on the cob and chicken neck.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 26, 2014 at 11:19 am

      True-waste is a normative notion that depends on us.

      There are various moral arguments why a distant human should matter more than a local raccoon. But, that said, I do put the well being of my dog over that of local strangers. Though I do donate food and money, I spend more on my dog (food, vet fees, etc.) than I do in helping to feed the poor.

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