Waste (at last)

Written by: Paul Thompson

Primary Source:  Thornapple CSA

So finally after last week’s silliness and the week before that’s semi-seriousness I want to circle back to the week before that’s deadpan no-foolin’ serious talk about the moral dimensions of food waste. I’ll start by apologizing to anyone who might have been offended by the sarcasm or by the flippancy implied by the way I’m sidling up to what many people would take to be a deadly serious topic. Except by ‘apologizing’ I mean what Socrates meant right before drinking the hemlock; to wit, defending myself, (as opposed to what Paul McCartney meant when noting that the kettle’s on the boil and we’re easily called away just before launching into that ditty about Admiral Halsey, a cup o’ tea and a butter pie).

Which is, in effect to prod a little harder on the deadly seriousness of food waste. And speaking of butter, we’ve blogged about leftovers at least once before and even then we were poking just a little bit of fun. Yet there is a strand running through food culture that sees any waste of food as a huge sin. People who have lived through hard times come by this very honestly, and I don’t mean to poke fun at them. There are precious few Americans around these days who endured food shrortages during the Great Depression, but there are plenty of Chinese who lived through the Great Famine years in the late 50s and early 60s. The tragedy in both cases was that there was food to go around, but a breakdown in the economic system that kept hungry people from getting it. So there’s this one kind of running-short-of-food-that-leads-you-to-conserve-every-scrap-of-butter-because-who-knows-when-you-might-need-it-and-even-if-you-don’t-someone-round-the-corner-does kind of worry about food waste, and then there’s a somewhat different kind of damn-I’m-hungry-why-can’t-I-have-some concern that is actually a little bit misplaced when it is understood as a problem of waste.

Now remember that we’ve already allowed as how throwing away food that you could have meaningfully used to feed a genuinely hungry person is a moral shame. Shame on the communes in China who threw food into garbage cans when others were so hungry they were boiling tree bark and digging up fresh corpses. But not, I dare say, on the farmers who plowed unsaleable crops into the ground while others stood in breadlines during the Great Depression. Somebody needed to buy those crops to feed hungry people, else the farmers themselves were going to be the ones taking the biggest hit. The shame here in the USA was on people who refused to support programs to give hungry people the money they needed to buy those crops themselves. By plowing them back, the farmers were at least saving on next year’s fertilizer. Which is to say that they were not literally wasting them in a morally pernicious way.

But to push my larger point, while there are moral shames in both counts, it’s potentially misleading to characterize the failure as a problem of some person or group wasting food. Nevertheless, talk about food waste seems to be a very natural way to encourage people to do something about a situation where people are going hungry. So here’s my dilemma. I don’t really want to criticize the recent push among news media (and the USDA) to bring this huge problem of food waste to everyone’s attention. Using the word ‘waste’ here does engage our moral sensibilities in a way that might get us around to doing something about food security. I don’t want to short-circuit that.

Yet you might be mistaken if you thought that the solution to this problem was to give hungry people some of the food you were about to “waste”. They don’t really need the food that you were literally about to throw in the garbage (there are some exceptions to this, which we’ll get to in the weeks to come). And if you’ve got cans on the shelf or something in the freezer that you decide to give away, well it’s not at all clear that you were going to waste it. In most instances, you’ll just go right out and buy some new food for the shelf…and then you’ll waste that food instead of the food you gave away. So I think that we’re really just talking about a charitable gift on your part  when you contribute to a food drive, rather than something like “not letting it go to waste.” All well and good. I don’t want to dissuade you from charity, even if this is not really doing anything to address the larger problems of food waste.

The following two tabs change content below.
Paul Thompson
Paul B. Thompson holds the W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. He formerly held positions in philosophy at Texas A&M University and Purdue University. His research has centered on ethical and philosophical questions associated with agriculture and food, and especially concerning the guidance and development of agricultural technoscience.
Paul Thompson

Latest posts by Paul Thompson (see all)