A bit delayed in announcing this, but I’ve got a new story up on Uncharted Magazine! It’s about a server in a high-end but not quite high-end-enough restaurant pretending to be an android. I mean, the title is the plot, essentially. It’s really good! Seriously, this is probably my favorite thing I’ve written in the past couple years, and I’m so pleased to have it published. You can read it over on Uncharted Magazine.
Here’s the second, concluding part of my notes on food waste.
When thinking about food waste, it’s easy to just peg it to the value of the food. This past year was the first time I really had to buy my own groceries. Multiple times, I messed up and didn’t store food properly, or bought too much of it and didn’t eat it fast enough before it got moldy. So when I was throwing away half a bag of green-splotched bagels, my thought was, crap, that’s like two bucks just gone. However when I realize that the faucet has been running all day, I think, crap, that’s a waste of water and energy for water treatment, because I’ve internalized that as the framework to understand water usage. Food waste isn’t a problem because of the dollar value, it’s a bunch of energy expended for no reason at all. So, to throw another analogy at you, it’s not like buying a sword in a video game, and then losing that sword when you die, and having to buy it again. It’s like buying a sword in a video game, and then losing it when you die, and then having all of the assets and coding for that sword deleted from the game, so that the developer has to redesign it and release a patch so you can buy the sword again. I don’t participate in the production of food, so it didn’t hit home to me all the labor that I was throwing in the trash with those bagels—I only knew the value of it as a consumer.
It shouldn’t be surprising that in developed countries, about 30-40% of food waste occurs at the consumption level, which is everything from household meals to restaurants. In restaurants, there are the same problems as at supermarkets re: over-stocking and expiration dates. In households, most cases of food waste can be broken down into a few categories, as outlined in a study of 14 lower-middle income Brazillian families: “(1) excessive purchasing, (2) over-preparation, (3) caring for a pet, (4) avoidance of leftovers and (5) inappropriate food conservation. Several subcategories were also found, including impulse buying, lack of planning and preference for large packages.” So let’s break these down.
“Excessive purchasing” is exactly what it sounds like—buying more food than is need, and more food than can be consumed before it goes bad. Ironically, this over-purchasing is often the result of buying in bulk in an effort to save money, or taking advantage of sales or BOGO bargains even when the family already has enough of the product at home. So the savings may be negated by the amount of food wasted. Excessive purchasing is also linked to unplanned shopping excursions—going to the store without a list, as “Only two of the 14 families studied prepare shopping lists.” In a 2012 study on national shopping trends in the US, the Hartman Group found that 69% of women make a list before shopping at a grocery store, and only 52% of men do the same.Read More »
And now, the synthesis of some notes I took on food waste while doing research for a story I’m writing.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency defines food waste as “uneaten food and food preparation wastes from residences and commercial establishments such as grocery stores, restaurants, and produce stands, institutional cafeterias and kitchens, and industrial sources like employee lunchrooms.” Food waste can occur all throughout the life cycle of a food product, from before the harvest all the way to the dining room table. With the waste that happens at all these different stages taken into account, the percentage of wastage in the US is a pretty big chunk of overall food production. A 2009 study published in PLOS ONE estimates that 40% of food produced in America is wasted, and a 2014 report from the USDA Economic Research Service pegs the number at 31%. In terms of calories, that’s either 1,400 calories per person per day, or 1,249 calories per person per day, respectively.
Obviously, this is a problem. Food production is the dynamo that powers all of human civilization. If that dynamo is inefficient and losing 1.3 billion tons of fuel per year, that’s a problem. If that dynamo is inefficient and losing 1.3 billion blah blah blah, and all of those 1.3 billion tons of fuel took additional fuel and water usage to produce, that’s a really big problem.
To put it another way, the situation isn’t as simple as walking to the store, and taking a wrong turn, and wasting an hour of time being lost before you make it to the store. The situation is driving a gas guzzler/steam engine beast of a vehicle, and taking a wrong turn, and wasting an hour of time and of gas and water and whatever else powers this thing you’re driving before making it to the store. Sustainable farming practices are kind of another kettle of fish, but it’s important to note here that a wasted potato is not just a wasted potato. It’s also a waste of all the resources that went into making that potato, which, depending on what point of the process the potato is wasted at, could be pretty hefty. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that, for the year of 2011, the carbon footprint of global food loss—the amount of energy put into food that ended up wasted—was 4.4 GtCO2, “or about 8% of total anthropogenic GHG emissions [EC, JRC/PBL, 2012 Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research, version 4.2]. This means that the contribution of food wastage emissions to global warming is almost equivalent (87%) to global road transport emissions [IPCC, 2014 Fifth Assessment Report. Chapter 8: Transportation].”
How do we arrive at such an enormous amount of wastage? That’s what most of this two-part series of posts will address.Read More »