The true cost of food: thoughts on Stop Food Waste Day

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I just learned that today, April 24, is Stop Food Waste Day, which a number of organizations are promoting. In order to get in on the fun, I hastily jotted down these thoughts about our ongoing food waste work.

If you read my previous blog post, you won’t be surprised to find out that a lot of the social media posts about Stop Food Waste Day are encouraging individuals to change their behavior to reduce household food waste. These efforts are crucial. Individual choice can go a long way toward reducing food waste. However, as long as the true price of food is not reflected in what we pay for food, society as a whole will continue to value food too cheaply and continue to waste it at a high rate.

Societal cost of food
Figure taken from Cities and Circular Economy for Food

What do I mean by the “true price of food?” I mean a price that includes the cost of all the environmental impacts generated in the production and the consumption of that food. A recent report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation suggests that society incurs a cost of $2 for each $1 spent on food. That suggests that food only costs 1/3 as much as it should. Breaking down the $2 in societal cost, about half of that is related to consumption, whether overconsumption (obesity) or underconsumption (hunger). The other half is the impact of production. The foundation report divides this into health, economic, and environmental effects, although the three are interrelated. Environmental scientists and economists use the term “externality” to refer to a cost that is caused by some activity but is paid not by the person who did the activity but by society. In the case of food, a negative externality related to health would be, for example, that the health costs of treating adult-onset diabetes are not paid by the manufacturers of sugary foods that contribute to diabetes. Externalities can also be positive — for example, a fruit orchard could beautify the countryside or provide nectar for bees that pollinate other crops nearby. Unfortunately, however, it appears that in our current food system the negative externalities outweigh the positive.

Our current work is focusing especially on the environmental piece of the pie in the picture above. Piggybacking off work being done at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture, we are working on models that will first determine the environmental impacts caused by the entire food system in the United States. This requires us to look at the externalities at each stage of the food supply chain, from farm to fork. Let’s take greenhouse gas emissions as an example. As food goes through the supply chain, activities involved with producing, processing, distributing, and transporting it release carbon dioxide and other gases that cause global warming into the atmosphere.

Diagram of supply chain
Image created by QDR

The image here shows wheat being made into spaghetti as an example. At the agricultural production stage, farm equipment burns fuel and releases greenhouse gas. The factory where the noodles are made releases more carbon dioxide. Distributors release even more when they truck the packaged product to stores, and consumers do too when they transport and cook the food. The total amount of greenhouse gas released increases as the food moves through the supply chain. You could say that spaghetti “virtually” represents a higher and higher amount of environmental impact, the further along the supply chain it progresses. In all cases, the greenhouse gas released is a negative externality because it harms us all by contributing to global warming, but isn’t included in the cost of the noodles. But the good thing is, if we can reduce waste at any one stage of the supply chain, we could get the positive effects of the waste reduction to trickle back up the chain and ultimately reduce the total environmental impact of the whole process.

Food waste by food type and stage
Image created by QDR, data from FAO

We also need to know how much of the environmental impact caused by the food system can be traced back to food that is ultimately wasted. The rate of waste is different both across the different stages of the process and across different types of food. I made this (cute!) figure using data from a report on food waste from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The steeper the lines go down, the bigger proportion of food is wasted for that stage and for that type of food. We’re going to use those numbers, or similar ones, to determine the overall amount of food currently wasted, which will let us figure out how much of the environmental impact we could potentially reduce by reducing food waste.

Once we have the baseline environmental footprint and the baseline rate of food waste, we are going to develop different scenarios representing different potential actions society could take to reduce waste at different stages of the production and consumption process. For each scenario, we will look at the changes in the environmental footprint for greenhouse gases and a number of other categories. We can use that information to rank different alternative solutions to the food waste problem, which will help guide society to take the correct action.

There’s a surefire way to get people to be more efficient and waste less of the food they buy, and thus a surefire solution to reducing food waste. That is to make food more expensive — to include some of those harmful externalities in its cost. But it is clear that if many people in both developed and developing countries already cannot afford enough to eat or can only afford a poor diet of unhealthy food, we cannot simply increase the cost of food by 200% and direct the surplus toward solving the problems caused by food production and consumption. The FAO, in another recent report called “The future of food and agriculture: Alternative pathways to 2050,” does not dance around that issue. In the report, they state that any pathway to a sustainable food system must be accompanied by a more equitable distribution of income both within individual countries and worldwide. That’s a tough challenge for Stop Food Waste Day and for every day.

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