Sunday, July 30, 2017

Long live food waste

One issue that occupies the minds of environmentalists from across the political spectrum is food waste. Around one-third of all food produced for human consumption is never eaten. To environmentalists, this is astonishing and terrible.

But, unfortunately, they are completely wrong. And I say that as a fervent environmentalist.

It is actually a world with zero food waste that is a terrible place to be. We absolutely do not want to be that world.

The reason is this.

Food waste is, in practice, a tremendously important global food insurance policy. In a world of zero food waste, if a natural disaster, such as a flood or drought, hits some of the most productive agricultural regions, both food production and food consumption will fall dramatically. There is no buffer. If production falls, food consumption falls by an equal amount.

If a flood, for example, wiped out a quarter of world food production one year, in a world with zero food waste the per person food intake must also fall on average by 25%. It would be an absolute humanitarian tragedy by any measure.

However, in a world where one-third of the food produced is wasted, either on the farm, during distribution, or in processing and cooking, that flood would have the same effect on food production, but a much smaller impact on overall food consumption. Reducing waste at each point in the food production chain could regain most of that 25% of food that was lost to flood.

The below table show this basic comparison. Country A is the idealised zero food waste utopia, producing 100 units of food, and consuming it all, in the Before scenario. Country B is the current world, consuming only two-thirds of the food produced, and ‘wasting’ the rest. Notice that in the situation before the natural disaster, Country B produces far more food, and this production requires vast swathes of land to be brought into production, something with considerable environmental cost.

But look at both countries in the After scenario, where an unforeseen disaster wipes out a quarter of food production, it is Country B that comes out on top. Country B is able to consume more than Country A, perhaps as much as before, by using the food waste as a type of insurance, able to be drawn on when needed.

This is important. As a world we can’t use traditional insurance for such situations. Being paid out financially by an insurance policy is useless if there is no food to buy. You still starve.

This is also why most countries heavily subsidise and incentivise agricultural production. Letting markets alone decide what to produce each year will not create the genuine over-supply needed to act as a buffer against bad times.

Indeed, countries with the most food waste are generally the most economically efficient. Europe and North America waste almost 300kg of food per person per year. In sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia, food waste is around half of that. Yet it is Europe and North America that are overall the most economically efficient in terms of converting resource inputs to outputs.

The above scenario also abstracts away from the many distributional issues at play in our food system as well. But reducing food waste overall won’t solve these either. If the problem is distribution, focus on distribution.

Indeed, if land degradation from agriculture is the underlying concern that makes reducing food waste an attractive idea, we should focus directly on the problem by making rules that control land uses to ensure better environmental outcomes. Indirect approaches should be a last resort.

Reducing food waste, like many pro-environment ideas, seems plausible and obvious on the surface but ignores crucial systemic issues.

First published at Renegade Inc.

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