What a Waste!

Here we are as usual, a day late and a dollar short on the latest hip fad in food ethics. That, of course, would be food waste. We are so dang slow on this one that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has beaten us to it, having announced a major initiative on curbing food waste way back in the fall of 2015. We (and by “we” I mean folks in general) are launched on a headlong assault on one of our big numbers: the amount of food that goes uneaten.

I actually have quite a bit to say about this, and it’s going to take me more than one blog to do it. I might as well start by admitting that I’m being just a little bit disingenuous there in the first paragraph, because we have in fact visited this question once or twice in the last half century that we have been reading and writing the Thornapple Blog. It is not as if the whole phenomenon of waste has escaped my attention altogether. As a matter of larger metaphysical facticity, I included a little discussion of waste in my 1995 book The Spirit of the Soil. Of course the point there was to notice that while you, me and our friend Bob might think of waste as food spiraling down the garbage disposal, from the typical farmers’ point of view waste is a plot of land that doesn’t have a crop on it. Which just goes to show how the very idea of waste has quite a few norms and judgments already bound up in it. It’s an inevitable topic for food ethics.

But for today I think I’m just going to certify the common sense perspective that has led lots of God fearing Christians (not to mention the USDA) into paroxysms over wasted food. This starts with the obvious thing: It is a crying shame when someone goes hungry while someone else is swilling perfectly good food down the garbage disposal. I’m not sure I want to go from this observation to judging the ethics of the person swilling food down the garbage disposal, but that would be getting ahead of ourselves. The common sense perspective is indeed a perceptive and perfectly valid ethical starting point. It identifies a problem and it points to the sense in which this is an ethical problem, one that calls for all of us to make a reflective and responsible response that addresses the mismatch between food insecurity, on the one hand, and edible food swilling down the garbage disposal, on the other.

Of course from this common sense perspective, there would not necessarily be an ethical problem with that spiral of edible food disappearing down the garbage disposal if it were not for the fact that some hungry person would have liked to have eaten it. So there is one more obvious point to certify before heading off into the ozone of metaphysical facticity, and that point would lie in the domain of environmental ethics. Producing food (e.g. farming) can be hard on the environment. A pointy-headed intellectual would say that food production has inevitable environmental costs, and this is, indeed, probably a slightly better (if also wordy) way to put the point. So if even if we managed to solve the hungry people part of wasted food, it would still be a crying shame to have produced some stuff that we didn’t really need in the first place. We might have saved the farmland that was used to grow the food spiraling down the disposal for some endangered butterfly, and if not that, we might have at least let the voles and mice whose bungalows were turned up by the plow sleep in a little bit longer.

These points are correct. They provide a starting point for recognizing that waste is an ethical problem. From this starting point, it’s possible to start making mistakes, and I’m going to examine a few of them from time to time over the coming months. I’ll be linking back to this cornerstone blog when I do so.

As the real-estate developers out there say, “Watch this space!”

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


One thought on “What a Waste!

  1. I’m not sure.

    First, whether I eat this bowl of Ben & Jerry’s has no bearing on whether some food-insecure person gets to eat it; their problem is grounded in some political, economic, and social structures that aren’t affected by how much I eat or don’t eat. (Sure, someone may reply with something like the fact that South Americans can’t afford to eat quinoa anymore, since the demand by North American health food nuts has driven the price up, but this is a fact of a particular economic system).

    Second, on the fact that producing food can be hard on the environment, and thus I ought not to pay someone to produce Cherry Garcia that I’m not going to eat: this is a matter of a crazy system of food production (re: the endangered butterfly). If any other animal lets edible food go to waste, good things happen: a squirrel gets to live another day, a blade of grass gets to mature and produce seed, a patch of lichen gets to… do whatever lichen does when a reindeer leaves it be. But we humans have gotten so efficient that we, so to speak, kill the squirrel/cut the grass/scrape off the lichen before we commit to eating it.

    We might eliminate food waste (I ate all the ice cream, so I’m doing my part), but we’ll still have the underlying structural problems, and so we’ll still have food-insecure people and environmental costs of farming.


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