How much food do Americans waste?

From the Economist:

[Kevin Hall and his colleagues at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases] found that the average American wastes 1,400 kilocalories a day. That amounts to 150 trillion kilocalories a year for the country as a whole—about 40% of its food supply, up from 28% in 1974. Producing these wasted calories accounts for more than one-quarter of America’s consumption of freshwater, and also uses about 300m barrels of oil a year. On top of that, a lot of methane (a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) emerges when all this food rots.

Not only is that a huge amount of wasted food, but so much of our water as well as other resources is wasted to produce and transport it. What is interesting is which particular ones account for the waste. Oil and water, both incredibly cheap in the U.S., help point out the contributor to why we can waste so much food: it’s cheap.

It would be interesting to see the distribution of price per calories for the particular foods that were measured.  I can postulate that not only is food cheap, but those that are cheaper per calorie (usually the stuff that is bad for you) makes up the majority of the food waste. These foods just happen to be made up of some of the food that is subsidized like corn and soy.  Not only do the inputs for production and transportation make the price of food cheap, but the price distortions caused by government subsidies do also.

Intuitively, it would make sense that most of the calories being wasted would be perishable items like fresh produce and meat.  However, I argue that such a huge difference in calories consumed and what is being purchased has to have a factor that skews the total amount of calories consumed in the direction of foods that are cheaper per calorie.   Fresh produce can easily be saved, (freezing, drying) and I don’t believe we eat enough of it to tip the scale against the large proportion of cheaper caloric foods .  Throw in the fact that produce isn’t subsidized, making it more expensive, and therefore, more inherently valuable. Meat (although subsidized to an extent) may be caloric-ally cheaper than produce, but perceptibly more valuable (it is everyone’s favorite isn’t it?) and easy to store as well. (freezing)

You would think that this doesn’t match the trend of rising obesity since more food wasted means less food eaten.  However…

Dr Hall and his colleagues suspect the wastage they have discovered and America’s rising levels of obesity are connected. They suggest what they call the “push effect” of increased food availability and marketing is responsible. The upshot is more food in the waste-bin, as well as more in the stomach.

I think it is safe to say that in order to reduce the waste of not only valuable food, but also of valuable resources, is to internalize the actual cost of what goes into producing the food, which would include increasing water prices for non-essential usage, tax oil, and of course, end corn and soy subsidies, or at least, shift them towards produce.* Not only do we efficiently handle our food supply and natural resources better, (foregone public revenues) but we may also help in trimming peoples waistlines which could in turn reduce healthcare costs.

*Changing buyer behavior, especially for those who are obese and low income, may not significantly change if subsidies were lifted as it is only a fraction for most caloric-ally cheap foods. Moving the subsidies to produce would be able to push prices lower, making incentives for buyers more real without imposing a regressive cost on caloric intake.


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