What follows may be completely misguided and I am sure is very naive.

There are three possibilities in any food system.

  1. Not enough food. A disaster.
  2. Just enough food. A very hard thing to achieve and very, very risky.
  3. Too much food. A state greatly to be desired.  Is this surplus ‘waste’? How much makes us safe? And at what point in the system? And who pays?

Isn’t some waste inevitable in a secure food system?

  •  Any food system–local, regional, national, transnational–needs to have some surplus. Crops get ravaged by diseases or pests, storage facilities leak, supply chains get disrupted by war, etc., etc. Reserves of food are surely essential.
  • Surplus food does not store very well.  Grains do better than meat and vegetables which need refrigeration. But even grains don’t keep for more than a few years.
  • So some food is going to be wasted unless a perfect way of cycling through reserves can be set up, which seems unlikely.

How much surplus (and likely waste) needed to have a secure food supply?

In the past (ancient Greece and China, say) traditional rules of thumb stipulated how many harvests had to be held in reserve. In war, governments rush to calculate stockpiles of food.

Who in (or out) of the food chain is to take the economic hit of waste?

Farmers want to sell as much as they can. Processors, restaurateurs, retailers want to keep costs down (and their image up). Consumers don’t want to waste what they have paid to buy (though many in the US are more anxious to avoid time waste using every bit of food than financial waste pitching it).

In traditional societies, most food waste occurred on the farm or in storage, thus producers took the hit.

In the 20th century US,  school lunch programs and overseas aid meant that the government took much of the hit. (This is tied up with subsidies and crop insurance as well).

In wealthy societies, supermarkets and consumers take the hit.

Isn’t some waste also necessary for innovation all along the food chain?

“Waste” has benefits apart from helping ensure an appropriate food supply. It also encourages experimentation.

I remember WW II rationing. Extreme thrift led to conservative, repetitive cooking. Now cooks can try out new things, knowing that if all goes wrong, they can pitch the inedible or unappealing results. Supermarkets can try out new products. And so on back along the food chain.

I am not arguing for a cavalier attitude to food, just for clarification about issues that lend themselves all too easily to moralizing and hectoring.

Enlightenment, please!


I’ve had some great comments that move the discussion along. Specifically on the issue of the optimum amount of waste:

Peter Hertzmann. hertzmann@hertzmann.com A la carte.

“In reference to inevitable waste above, I’d go as far to say that food waste is required for the food delivery system to operate smoothly. It is impossible to grow, bring to market, and sell the exact number of peaches that will be consumed each year. Even if you could, some of the peaches purchased would not be consumed for a variety of reasons. The main way to reduce food waste for produce and fruits is to create scarcity.

Processed foods have a similar issue. Small, artisan bakeries can maybe sell their entire production each day, but large scale commercial bakeries have to keep shelves stocked in grocery stores. Some portion of that stock will reach its pull-by date, and reprocessing into other forms may not be economically feasible.

Food waste has been going on for a long time. Turn-of-the-20th-century refrigerator advertisements touted as one of their features that they could help reduce food waste. In 1917, the U.S. Government estimated that slightly over 36% of food was wasted. (At the same time, a significant number of men volunteering to fight during the First World War was determined to be malnourished.) By 2008, the figure had dropped to about 27%.

Food can be wasted in hundred of ways along the food chain. Some solutions can be on a massive scale, such as rethinking how pull-by dates are determined and applied. Others will be more “local” such as teaching proper trimming and food storage techniques to consumers. There may be some benefit achieved by revisiting food grading standards, but I doubt that making massive changes to the system would be beneficial.”

Marion Swain, Senior Analyst, Breakthrough Institute.

“In his book Feeding the World, Vaclav Smil acknowledges that some amount of food waste is unavoidable. He estimates it at about 10-15%. However, this is lower than the amount of waste in rich countries like the US (one-third or higher).” 

Jayson Lusk.   A blog post about economically optimal food waste. 

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