Is Food Waste Like Reports of Mark Twain’s Death?*

“One third, eh?”

My article titled “On the Measurement of Food Waste,” written with University of Minnesota colleagues Metin Çakir, Hikaru Hanawa Peterson, Lindsey Novak, and Jeta Rudi became available online a few weeks ago as an advanced access article on the American Journal of Agricultural Economics website.

Since I was traveling then, I didn’t get much of a chance to sit down and blog about it, but here goes.

In case you missed my earlier posts on the topic, here is the abstract:

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, one-quarter to one-third of all the food produced worldwide is wasted. We develop a simple framework to systematically think about food waste based on the life cycle of a typical food item. Based on our framework, we identify problems with extant measures of food waste and propose a more consistent and practical approach. In so doing, we first show that the widely cited, extant measures of the quantity and value of food waste are inconsistent with one another and overstate the problem of food waste. By misdirecting and misallocating some of the resources that are currently put into food waste reduction efforts, this overstatement of the problem could have severe consequences for public policy. Our framework then allows documenting the points of intervention for policies aimed at reducing the extent of food waste in the life cycle of food and the identification of interdependencies between potential policy levers.

A few days later, I spent some time talking to The New Food Economy’s Joe Fassler, who wrote a nice article about our paper:

“What we’re trying to do is just be a bit more accurate about what ‘food waste’ means,” says Marc Bellemare, one of the study’s co-authors.

The new definition of “food waste” is, at least, attractive in its simplicity: “As long as food does not end up in a landfill, it is not wasted,” Bellemare and his co-authors write. By this logic, food that escapes the landfill by being put to any use at all it would not count towards the overall tally of “wasted” food—anything used for animal feed, in consumer products, to power vehicles, to make compost, and so on.

That’s not a perfect solution. Certainly, considering the huge amounts of oil and water, pesticides and fertilizer we use to grow food, some uses are more desirable than others. It’s probably always better to see food end up in people’s bellies than in the pig trough, anaerobic digester, or compost pile. But the authors argue that food repurposed in this way is too valuable to be called “waste.”

It has been interesting to write this latest AJAE article, and it has certainly led to interesting opportunities for additional work. I’m hoping to do more work on the topic over the next few years.

* See here if you are looking for the relationship between food waste and reports of Mark Twain’s death. And yes, I do realize that Mark Twain’s original quip is widely misquoted. Call it artistic license…

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