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Waste Not, Want Not ... Wait?

Re-assessing how much food we throw out.

In the world of food writing there is, as with any genre, a guiding set of self-evident truths. Organic is healthier; local is better; processed is poison; genetically modified is unnatural; and so on. Over the last decade, it has been one of the more refreshing developments to watch these established truths weaken and, in some cases, fall apart as new research shows them to be problematic. The result, judging from the more balanced food and environmental writing now being done, looks to be an approach to thinking about food and agriculture that is more flexible, less burdened by ideological blinders, and increasingly attentive to the disruptive influence of new research.

This gradual tendency to question established truth has now caught up with an issue that has, for several years, dominated the news cycle: food waste. The big take on food waste is that we throw out an unconscionable amount of meat and produce. Assuredly, the stats are alarming. A 2016 Food and Agriculture Organization report notes that the United States wastes 103 million tonnes of food a year.

How much is that? "An unfathomable amount," according to The Atlantic, before clarifying that it's nearly a third of all food produced. The Guardian, scolding Americans for fetishizing attractive produce, writes that the U.S. tosses out 50 percent of its fruits and vegetables. Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, explains how a day's worth of food waste in the U.S. could fill a football stadium. Capitalizing on these data points, and surely our growing guilt, The Food Network produced a program called The Big Waste, in part to highlight the problem and encourage effective personal responses to it.

In a familiar move, advocates who fight to ameliorate ecological problems of this magnitude have provided lists of ways we can address the cause through individual action. HuffPost ran a typical column suggesting, among other things, that individual consumers purchase ugly fruit, compost their organic waste and use it to grow home gardens, send unwanted food to food banks and other charities, and donate to organic farmers.

These suggestions are comforting. Nothing we are asked to do is terribly demanding and, to boot, we can feel virtuous while doing it. But there's also the problem of what philosophers call "causal impotence." Do our actions, considered as discrete individual gestures, matter? Does my lone decision to compost my scraps do anything tangibly significant to eliminate that Rose Bowl of tossed produce? Likely not. And even if enough of us did contribute en masse to reduce a section of the stadium—an unlikely scenario barring strict requirements to do so—does that amalgam of personal choices represent the wisest way to direct our collective actions?

The newest research on food waste becomes relevant in light of these questions. Earlier this year, the organization Food Forward, a produce recovery organization based in Southern California, suggested that "before we dive in the dumpster, it's important to know that the information we have is not perfect." It is, in fact, far from it. Food Forward adds: "[A]ll our knowledge about food waste comes from studies which use various different methods to estimate how much food is being lost or thrown away."

Addressing this concern, researchers writing in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics asked what very few of us bother to ask: "Is 'food waste' really wasted food?" What they found requires us to rethink our understanding and approach to food waste.

The findings are basically twofold. The first takes issue with the way that food waste is currently defined. According to the FAO, it is the "discarding of alternative (non food) use of food that is nutritious and safe for human consumption along the entire food supply chain." This definition is almost universally applied. The problem with it is that, as the authors explain, "recovered food is not necessarily wasted food." Recovered food—which has hitherto been deemed food waste, may be used as either animal feed or fertilizer. In these scenarios, the authors argue, "what was once a possible future meal for a human has become an input to another productive process." If the food does not end up in a landfill, these authors contend, it should not count as waste—which seems to be a perfectly reasonable claim.

The second finding involves cost. When lamenting the amount of food wasted, critics are just as quick to note the expense of our profligacy. The standard figure cited comes from the Natural Resources Defense Council. It estimates a staggering $165 billion lost annually. That comes to about $2,000 per household. But on this point the data is also questionable. According to the economists writing in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, "conventional measures of food waste rely on retail prices—the prices paid at the end of the process." But a great deal of food produced—and wasted—never ends up at the point of production. The authors correctly note that, "[b]y using only the highest prices, the estimated monetary loss is greater than if the relevant prices at each stage were used." This finding means, for starters, that you probably do not toss out $2,000 worth of food a year.

What it does not mean is that food waste is irrelevant. To the extent that this new research implicates personal consumer behavior, the best thing we could probably do to reduce food waste is to stop eating animals raised on feedlots. Whether the corn and soy is counted as food waste or not (and the researchers suggest that we should not count it as such) upstream opportunity costs—namely dedicating almost half of U.S. arable land to row crops we feed to animals—is far more wasteful than anything that happens in our private kitchen. In fact, it's probably the most wasteful allocation of resources in human history. As is so often the case, government and industry will have to address this problem before our personal choices matter in the least.