Russ Roberts

Rachel Laudan on Food Waste

EconTalk Episode with Rachel Laudan
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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food%20waste.jpg Historian Rachel Laudan talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about food waste. Laudan argues that there are tradeoffs in preventing food waste--in reduced time for example, or a reduction in food security, and that these tradeoffs need to be measured carefully when considering policy or giving advice to individuals or organizations. She also discusses the role of food taboos and moralizing about food. Along the way, Laudan defends the virtue of individual choice and freedom in deciding what to eat.

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0:33

Intro. [Recording date: November 10, 2017.]

Russ Roberts: Our topic for today is food waste.... Now, you wrote on your blog,

Food waste is presented in moral terms. It's bad, even a sin, to waste food. This is a terrible way to frame the issue.
And it does, for many people, seem like a moral issue. It just seems wrong to waste food. Why do you think it's bad to frame it that way?

Rachel Laudan: I think there are two reasons. The first one is that, even if you accept that wasting food is bad--and I think most of us have that drummed into us from small children with the phrase 'Waste not, want not'--we can come back to that if you want to--even if you think it's wrong, it is simply one among many wrongs and rights that as adults we have to weigh. There are other issues about food. Is our food safe? Is our food healthy? Is our food taking an inordinate amount of time to acquire and prepare? Is our food enjoyable? Is our food--are we expressing at a meal respect for other people? So, all these goods have to be weighed. Just take the question of health. I like to prepare orange juice for my husband, because, for various reasons, he has problems eating oranges, peeled, but the segments whole. Now, when I make orange juice, my husband, I can easily get what's called a week's worth of food waste in one day, because, by the time I have expressed the juice from all the peels, the peels weigh 3 or 4 pounds. The average food waste in a family, for a person, for a week. Now, that quantity of waste, I could in fact do something with it. Those orange peels are technically edible. I could turn them into candied orange peel. But, the heart quails at the thought of eating 3 pounds of candied orange peel a week. So, they get thrown away. So, they've got two values that are potentially in conflict: Healthy food for my husband; and food waste. And, all the time, when we're talking about waste, we're talking about weighing the problems about waste against other potential problems or harms or bads in the world.

Russ Roberts: I want to come--let's stick with your orange juice example for a minute, because I recently mentioned on the program, and I mentioned it before: I find it such a compelling and interesting example that orange juice, and juice boxes, in many ways is more environmentally friendly than what you do--which is to make your own orange juice.

Rachel Laudan: Right.

Russ Roberts: And most people would say, 'Well, no, it's much better to make it yourself.' Because they don't have all the packaging of the juice box container. You just take the orange, and you can pour it into a glass after you've squeezed it; and then you can re-wash the glass. Whereas, the container has to be recycled, or it takes up landfill. But, of course, as I've mentioned before, transporting oranges in the form of juice boxes, which are square, rectangular, is much better--meaning many fewer trucks--than transporting it via oranges, because of the space between the oranges when they are stacked in the boxes in their raw form. But, the other part, which I think I mentioned a long time ago but not so much recently, is that, when you are Coca Cola, or whoever owns Tropicana--one of them owns Minute Maid; Coca Cola owns either Minute Maid or Tropicana; I can't remember which one. But, when you are processing the amount of oranges that Tropicana or Minute Maid is doing, you don't throw out those orange peels. You grind them up and turn them into animal feed. So, they don't get wasted at all. So, you are actually doing something that's actually environmentally unfriendly. Not only because you are just throwing away those peels, but because you are buying oranges rather than juice boxes. Which is crazy. But, that's I think the reality. Now, you could compost. Do you compost?

Rachel Laudan: I don't think in general we make enough food waste to compost. In fact, the orange juice example comes from Mexico, where orange juice in cartons was not as common as here. So, here, I have gone over to cartons. But, I think it's an example of the kind of costs you have to weigh off. Composting is another one. When I was a child on a farm, all the food went out into actually--it was the dung-spreader rather than the composter. But it all went back out onto the farm. In the suburban neighborhood, unless you know what you are doing, your compost heap is either ineffective, or it is a neighborhood nuisance--because you obviously can't just put all your household waste into the compost--and fats and oils in particular, which are one of the biggest sources of household waste, food waste, don't do well in composts. So, again, it's a question of weighing the options.

6:47

Russ Roberts: As listeners know, I summer in Palo Alto, in California. And in Palo Alto, the garbage can they give you is about the size of a shoe box. Now, it's a little bigger than that. That's an exaggeration. But it's not a lot bigger. It's shockingly small, and it's deceptively small--or deceptively large; I don't know what the right English usage is there. But, it's very short. That's not deceptive. But, when you open it you realize a lot of it is filled with the sidewalls of the can. There is very little room to squeeze in more than one or two plastic garbage backs each week. And they do that to encourage you to recycle. So, they give you a larger-than-that recycling bin, which we happily fill up with the cardboard boxes and other things that we acquire over the course of the week. But then, there's a compost thingy; and it's vile. It's a little green plastic box that you're supposed to dump your stuff in. And, they don't--if I remember this correctly, and other Palo Altoans can remind me: I'm only there one, a little over a month a year--but you are allowed to and even encouraged, you just dump your stuff in there. Not in any plastic container. So, in the summer, we take a paper bag; we fill it full of peels and other stuff--plate scrapings--and then you dump that bag, you empty it into this plastic container that you keep outside. Or you can keep it in your house. But, there's got to be some side effects of having that raw food sitting outside or in your kitchen for pests, varmints--love that word, 'varmints'--animals, etc. I guess that's a really high form of recycling, is to let raccoons and others, rats and others get at your food. But, it just doesn't strike me as--it's not very pleasant. I'll just say that.

Rachel Laudan: Well, Austin is just trying to go over to composting, as one of its extremes of recycling. And, they issued bins to everybody and they discovered, if I'm correct--and again, Austin should correct me on this one--two things. First, they'd overestimated quite considerably the amount of compostable household waste that households were going to put out. And, second, that people simply wouldn't put it out unless they had plastic bags to put in the bins. So, now--and I'm not sure who pays for this, but it's a cost--they are offering compostable plastic bags to put your compost out in your bin.

Russ Roberts: There you go.

9:43

Russ Roberts: So, this is going to sound bad. I often offend listeners when I say this, so I'm going to say it in as pleasant a way as I can. When people say that food waste is bad, there's a religious aspect of it. So, a lot of people don't like to be called religious who don't go to church or synagogue or mosque. So, they find it off-putting or cruel or inappropriate. But, let me say what I mean by that. What I mean by that is the same way I, as a religious Jew--I don't eat pork. It doesn't matter how good it smells. It doesn't matter how tastily it's prepared. And it doesn't matter how cheap it is. There's no tradeoff for me. I don't say, 'Well, this time it's such a great smell, and the bacon is so appealing, I'll have it because it's really going to be delicious.' Which is the way we treat other things, like the Almond Joys that accumulated after Halloween this year. You know, I don't want to eat them, but every once in a while for the thrill of it, I have one. But pork is different. In economics, I think the right word is 'lexicographical.' It's either on or off. There's no price effect. I just don't--it's not in my preference function, would be another way to say it. So, I think for some people, waste is that same way. It's just--it's bad. As you said, a lot of people freeze-frame it as a moral issue. And these trade-offs that you are suggesting should be there for safety or other things, people don't like the idea of that. They just don't want to have any food waste. Because it's wrong. Do you think that's an accurate summary of the way some people feel about it?

Rachel Laudan: I'm sure it is. And I'm curious about why it should be regarded this way. It's clearly not new. If you go back--and I'm sure you can go back further than this, right back to traditional religions, which tend to have taboos on waste. But, just to keep it within near-ly living memory, if you go back to World War I, there was an enormous campaign against food waste that was conducted in just these terms--that it was a moral absolute. And then, I'm interested in what underpins what that kind of moral talk. And now, of course, the environment creeps into it. But, traditionally, it was that somehow, if you waste food, someone else is suffering because that food could feed somebody else. In WWI, WWII, it might be the troops. In WWI, it might be sent to feed the starving Belgians. After WWII, it could be sent to feed the starving Africans. And now, the argument, or one of the arguments against food waste, is it could be sent to feed the food-insecure in the United States. Now, whether it can--in many cases, obviously it can't. I mean, children figure that out.

Russ Roberts: On the first day.

Rachel Laudan: Yeah. The claim about the Africans, very early on. But, I think there is that lurking feeling that somehow, if we, if I throw food away, somebody else is hurting because of that.

Russ Roberts: Well, I think you make an interesting point about religion, more informal religion. Most religions have, I think--Judaism does for sure--you are not allowed to waste. Because it's divine. The world is a gift from God, and if you are wasting it, then you've not appreciated the gift. So, that's the sort of motivation. For the non-religious, this point about the starving issue is, I think the idea would be, it's invoking that kind of moral sanction. It's saying, the real goal isn't to get people to eat their Brussels sprouts. The real goal--it's a terrible example to use given that you are talking about the Belgians--but the real goal is to get people to make less to start with, I think is the idea; and thereby reduce waste; and thereby free up supply for people elsewhere. And that's--you're right, I think that's not a bad idea, that we shouldn't over-eat. It's [?] natural incentive not to over-eat; we often struggle with it, because we like food and its relatively inexpensive today, relative to the past. But I think the idea is very--in wartime, when there's "not enough to go around"--I say 'quote' because there's never enough to go around of most things, but especially in wartime when the constraints of production of food are very large and binding, then you often will want to encourage people to make [eat? waste? --Econlib Ed.] less than they otherwise would, and thereby free up supply for other people. And that's not a bad idea. But, you are right. The argument that children are starving in Africa; and when the kid sees that if you don't comply with the 'finish your plate,' the food gets scraped into the garbage--I think the kid catches on pretty quickly that it's not a very good argument. Of course, it's sometimes used to make us feel just guilty: 'There are starving children. How dare you not eat?' So, I guess there's something to that.

Rachel Laudan: No, I mean, I think one of the problems is the word 'waste.' Because, the very word carries a huge emotive punch. I think of it, as a historian, in terms of food, let's call it systems--whether it's a regional system or a national system or now a trans-national system. We've got kind of three situations: You don't have enough food--well, that's a disaster, and nobody wants to have not-enough food; or, you have just-enough food, which is actually both incredibly difficult to achieve and very, very tricky, because you never know when there is going to be some fungal disease, climatic disaster, warfare; or, you have a surplus in the system. And, a surplus in the system is I think tremendously much to be desired, because it is the only way you can have food security. And, so, then, the question becomes not one of sort of moral, the moral problem of waste, but the economic one of: What kind of surplus do you need and how much can you keep that surplus moving through the system so that it's minimized? What's the optimal kind of surplus?

Russ Roberts: But in most countries, no one is in charge of the food supply. It's up to the individual farmers, retailers, grocers, bakers, consumers. And, there's a certain natural impulse to surplus that's built into that system through self-interest, not through some policy decision made by somebody. And ironically, of course, we are this month--the word 'celebrating seems inappropriate'--observing--commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. And, the Russian Revolution, one of the things that was notable about it was that they had trouble feeding their own people, despite the incredible fecundity of the Ukraine, and the ability to grow wheat there. They always somehow had a bad wheat harvest. There was bad weather, for decades, evidently, after the Russian Revolution; of course, that's a joke. The system was not incentivized to get people to make enough food; and they killed a lot of their farmers, actually. Which certainly discouraged farming. So, in America, however--and in France, and in--you don't have to be a hardcore capitalist country to do this--bakers, every day, make, almost always too much bread. And I celebrated the bread market in my poem, "It's a Wonderful Loaf." Some people react to that poem by saying, 'It's a horrible thing, that's there's always bread available because a lot of it gets wasted.' And I think, your point about waste is the exact right point. If I show up in the store to get rye bread and they don't have it, and I have to go now to a different store to look for it again, what's been wasted is my time. And we'll never get that back. Whereas, to produce a little extra bread, that some of it might get left over, but the baker never wants to confront a hungry customer with, 'Sorry. We're out.' So, they'll always have an incentive to produce a little too much. Which means that the price of bread is a little higher than it otherwise be. You can go to a bakery; a baker will try to thrive by having cheaper bread. Which would sometimes not be available, because they'd out, because they were too--they weren't willing to produce that surplus in case demand was a little higher than usual that day. But, I think most consumers prefer the surplus. And, the other thing to emphasize, of course, is that the baker doesn't typically want to throw it out. They want to do something with the bread, which they will, if it's possible legally to use the bread somewhere else or to sell it as stale or old or to do other things with it.

Rachel Laudan: Exactly. And, the farmer doesn't want to have unsold crops in his field. And the processor doesn't want to have unsold vegetables sitting in the cold chain. And the consumer, although it's not always the overriding consideration, doesn't want to spend a lot more on groceries than they have to. So, they all want to do something, as they inevitably do, having extra. They need to have extra, and then they would prefer to do something, if they can. If it doesn't cost too much.

20:16

Russ Roberts: So, let's talk about the, if you can thing. You and I both know about this recent documentary called Wasted that came out. And it's a condemnation of food waste. And it's got a lot of dramatic statistics, many of which are hard to verify, but which sound horrible: one third of all food produced is never eaten; 40% of the food that is produced goes to waste; 90% of the food that's wasted ends up in landfills. The annual cost of waste is a trillion dollars. And 800 million people in the world are starving while 1.3 billion tons of food are wasted every year. So, that sounds pretty horrible. And what they do in this documentary is they go through the different aspects of the food chain that you just mention: Farmers, processors, retailers, consumers. And they try to show you different ways that people are conserving food when they can. And, when they don't, they are trying to browbeat us into changing our behavior. So, one of the examples that they use is groceries. Grocery stores. It's a very interesting thing. I don't know the answer. But, one of their themes in the documentary is that when you pick up a pound of butter or a thing of milk or a can of something, it will say, 'Best by,' or 'Sell by,' or some phrase that's printed on the packaging that tells you when it's not good to eat it after that date. And a lot of those foods--well, of course, they are fine to eat them after that date. They don't go bad. But people are discouraged. Well, you know, chicken is one thing; and milk is one thing. Those are things that do go bad very quickly. But a lot of the things that are on there--it's also the same with medicine. A lot of the expiration dates--I don't know--is this a legal--I don't know if you know. Is it a legal thing? That they are protecting themselves? But, it's true that a lot of people are, presume then, that it's dangerous, to eat it after that date. Do you know anything about that?

Rachel Laudan: I don't know whether it's a legal thing. I do know that Britain has recently begun changing those sell-by dates in order to reduce the kind of unnecessary waste that goes along with those. And that seems to me not a bad thing to do. Partly because anything that can reduce fear of food, at the moment, quite apart from the waste issue, is a good thing. We have, in this incredible abundance, we have because of fear and guilt, waste and due dates and what have you--we have produced a really neurotic way of thinking about food I think in the United States. So, I don't know whether it's the producers protecting themselves--which of these are government regulations, which would also obviously tend to be very conservative in their estimates about shelf-life of food products. But, no. It certainly increases the amount of food that groceries throw out. I regularly buy meat that is put in the--not the waste bin, but the reduced bin, when it's still got 3 or 4 days even to its due date. And, often, it would last long after that.

Russ Roberts: You just give it a good sniff, and it seems okay.

Rachel Laudan: Well, you can tell from the color. And the texture.

Russ Roberts: There's lots of ways.

Rachel Laudan: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: Well, it reminds me a little bit of the government guidelines for temperatures meat should be cooked to. Which are designed to make the turkey you just had for Thanksgiving--we are taping this before Thanksgiving, but I think it will air a little later, after Thanksgiving or right around Thanksgiving. The turkey temperatures that the government recommends are designed to make the turkey virtually inedible. So, but, salmonella and other bacterial problems are not good. So, you have to be careful. There's a tradeoff there between taste and safety. And you should consult with your local scientist for what temperature you think is good. I would never as host of EconTalk be giving people some food temperature. But, my personal feeling is that--don't try this at home--is that some of those temperatures are a little too high.

Rachel Laudan: I'm sure you are right.

25:00

Russ Roberts: Let's talk about farming. I think one of the things that's decried in this documentary--amusing is not the right word, but interesting, I guess, is that Americans like pretty food. They like aesthetically pleasing food. So that a carrot that's a little bit gnarly or various vegetables that are mis-shapen or fruits tend not to sell in America. If you go to the produce section of a first-rate American grocery, it looks like a museum. The pieces they are perfect. You go to Costco--Costco is--the visual appearance of their produce is just spectacular. Sometimes it's not as tasty, I would argue. But it's very physically, aesthetically attractive. Do you have any thoughts on that? I think it's true. I think we do care about pretty food.

Rachel Laudan: Uh, no, I don't have a very strong line on that. I mean, clearly, at the moment, there is a big movement to sell ugly food. And a lot of people are picking up on that. I don't know to what extent it is driven by the fact that, frequently, uniformly-shaped vegetables are great deal easier to deal with in the kitchen. I grew up with what in America are called sunchokes, and in England were called Jerusalem artichokes. They are little, knobbly root things. And they are the very devil to peel before you cook them, because they are all knobbly. And the same is true of many kinds of produce. It's easier to deal with apples if they don't have wormholes and bumps on them. So, I don't know where the line between aesthetics and ease of processing, either in the big processors or in the home lies, exactly. But, it's not an issue I've followed.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. The claim is that a lot of food gets wasted because people don't want to buy it because it looks funny. Or, it's aesthetically unpleasing for other reasons. We've had Alex Guarnaschelli on here talking about her restaurant, Butter, in New York City, and how she tries to do, use, her vegetables and her animals from 'nose-to-tail' is the restaurant term. Meaning, you try to use everything. Some people don't like the idea of tongue, or brains, or lungs, or whatever. Those get made into soups, I presume, in most places. But some people like exotic things, and they'll try them. But they do not like to buy funny-looking things in the grocery, in general. And so there is a challenge. But, I assume farmers don't throw it away. Nobody throws anything away that can be sold. In general.

Rachel Laudan: No, I'm sure.

Russ Roberts: I mean obviously if the costs they are selling at are too high. But I think one of the implications of this kind of movement is that we've got a profligate culture. A throw-away lifestyle. But, in the industrial world, very little gets thrown away. And my favorite example of this is the creation of a pencil, which is one of my favorite things--for reasons that I think listeners will appreciate, from Leonard Read's "I, Pencil." When they make--they take two pieces of cedar and they sandwich them around the graphite, and then they--so, they take a cedar plank, a small slat. They groove it to hold the graphite. Then they take another slat and they put that on the other side, so you have a sandwich, now, of cedar and graphite. And then they carve, essentially, the pencils out of that--the six-sided pencils. And, of course, there's a little bit of cedar that gets left behind. Because it's not square. It's six-sided. Which makes it easier to hold, of course. And so, those left-over cedar shavings, I'm told--they don't get thrown away. They--turkeys like them. Another Thanksgiving reference. Turkeys like to sit on beds of cedar. So, I don't know if they pay for turkey farmers to come get them, or whether they sell them, are able to sell them to turkey farmers. But, it doesn't get wasted.

Rachel Laudan: No. Well, I think one of the ironies of the current debate about waste is the whole fresh food issue. Because, we, consumers have been urged on in the last 10 or 15 years to eat more fresh, natural food and less canned and frozen food. Now, going back to the carrots: If you are going to can your carrots in slices, or, I don't know if you freeze carrots. But, if you are going to process them into soups, it doesn't matter what shape they are. And they last very nicely as canned, beef-vegetable soup, for example. Now, if you go to fresh, natural food, what you are doing is pushing along to the consumer, or the consumer is buying some of the most difficult food to use up, in time, before it goes bad. And so, the consumer has to learn a whole bunch of new skills, if they take very seriously the idea that they should load up at the farmer's market and only have fresh, natural fruits and vegetables.

30:42

Russ Roberts: Well, the thing that I've learned--I've learned a number of things from your original, but one that I think about often is that converting edible things--converting food, and processing food, and making it chewable and digestible is a lot of work. And it's in many ways the work of human civilization over the last 5000 years is to do that--is to make things that were remarkably unpleasant to eat, like a stalk of wheat, and transform them into a loaf of bread. And all those things take know-how and knowledge, and a lot of labor; and sometimes really good teeth. And, so, this is just another example of that point.

Rachel Laudan: Yes. It is.

Russ Roberts: And I really like that. Of course, that war against processed food is again a little bit of a work and wise use of one's time. Which is in many ways more important--

Rachel Laudan: Yes, it is. Absolutely. Yeah.

Russ Roberts: The point you made the other day, though, I think it was on your blog, or maybe it was on Twitter, is that there's a lot of skills involved there for most people, that they just don't have. Like, peeling that Jerusalem artichoke--getting that Jerusalem artichoke ready for eating, that's an art. That's going to take some practice.

Rachel Laudan: Right. Right. And, it's one perhaps of the many reasons why, when I see chefs arguing or promoting a lack of waste, there, as in many other areas, they are apt to over-estimate the skills of--and the time--of the average home-preparer of food.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, there is that series--I forget what network it is on--of great chefs. They are really extraordinary documentaries of great chefs. And, one of them is Dan Barber. What Dan Barber can do in his kitchen is not what I can do in my kitchen. And one of the reasons, by the way, there's very little waste in those upscale restaurants--they don't give you much food to start with. It's very aesthetically pleasing. And I don't think people leave a lot on the plate in those places. Not at the prices they pay, I'd guess.

Rachel Laudan: No. I think not. But, the other side of that is that, for most restaurants not to give a generous helping is to turn away customers. And that does mean that the doggie-bad phenomenon, or the restaurant left-over food phenomenon, is one that is a large one. Because restaurants helpings are typically so much larger than home-helpings.

Russ Roberts: Well, they've gotten so much better at doing things cheaply. It's exactly what we're talking about, what a restaurant can do in its kitchen versus what you and I can do in our kitchen. Just like the orange squeezing example. They get every drop of juice out of that orange in a way you can't. And they do something with the rind. And the same thing is going on in the kitchen there. They've got so many economies of scale for them--to make stock out of leftover parts, that for you or I is a nuisance because we've got to freeze it and put it somewhere and wait till we can use it. Yeah. For sure.

Rachel Laudan: Get rid of the soggy remains.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

34:23

Russ Roberts: Now, you tweeted about this recently. And, at the end of it you waxed philosophical and I found it extremely interesting, and I want to turn to that now. You say, after you'd made some observations along the line about what we had been talking about, you said:

I also like the freedom of making up my own mind about what and how I eat. I've been thinking about that for much of a long life.
What do you mean by that?

Rachel Laudan: I think, it's both a great benefit of the current generation and a huge challenge. For most of history, most people did not have a choice of what they ate. Often, that was simply that there was so little to eat that you ate your tortilla and beans, and that was it. For those who were wealthier, often they were put in situations where what they ate was carefully monitored. Religious orders made sure that in commonly feeding, say, a monastery or other religious funds[?] it was easier for the monks to be abstemious because they said they weren't given, they said, they weren't given 'lashings of food'[?]. Or, if soldiers had to be strong, again, they had communal feeding for the soldiers. So, I think the idea of having choice in food is something that is a relatively recent development. I think it is an enormous increase in pleasure; but it's also, of course, an enormous increase in responsibility. And I don't think we've worked out quite how to do it yet. I would not want to go back to the situation of very little choice in food. I mean, I grew up, and in the British school you had to eat everything on the plate. There was no choice; it was delivered to you and that was it. It was seen as, I think a training in how to cope when you went into the colonial world, perhaps. But, now I like the fact that I can decide what I eat. I think being a citizen, the more freedoms you can have, the better. It's a change from subject to citizen. And I appreciate it. But it is causing lots of problems, I think.

Russ Roberts: Which is causing lots of problems? That freedom?

Rachel Laudan: Having that--I thought--you know, oh, abundance: it's wonderful; everybody can have a choice. And I think it is a good thing. I wouldn't want to go back to no choice, not for one moment. I think it is, for an adult to be able to decide what and when you put you put in your mouth is something that is very valuable. But, unfortunately, it's a decision that has to be made 3 times a day, or twice a day, 7 days a week. And I think it's led, for many people, to a lot of anxiety. I think that will get worked out. We're the first generation--second generation, really, that's had this choice of being able to eat what we want to. And, it's a learning curve for people to have that choice.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. As you point out, or as you are implying, our culture responds to that in various ways. And, of course, you and I are both lucky to live in a place where our problem is abundance. There are still many, many places in the world where the problem is scarcity. You know, people say that--I've heard that 1 in 6 Americans is food-insecure. Those kind of sentences, I don't care for because they are not well-defined and they are usually issued by people with an axe to grind. But, certainly there are people in America who probably struggle to get enough to eat. But most Americans don't. Most people in the so-called developed world don't. And many people in the so-called developing world do have a very difficult time. So, it's a strange time, actually, right? We have about a billion people who struggle near subsistence in the 7-billion-person world. And we have a billion or so people in the developed world where they are struggling with obesity, and this issue of environmental consequences, perhaps, or at least the psychological challenge of dealing with uneaten food. And, it's a strange time. As you say, it's a new thing. It will, "get worked out." I don't know how it will be worked out, though. I think it's really interesting to think about it. You observe, also, in that same stream on Twitter, you say,

Through too much of history, states, religions, and others have determined what can and can't be eaten.

In the past 30 years, one food scare/imperative after another (eat organic/local/natural etc) have been proposed.

And waste is the latest.
So, it does seem that there's a--faddishness is a little cruel as a way to describe it, but there is a certain alarm that's been set off in series about these different issues.

Rachel Laudan: I don't think it's faddishness. I think it's--at least I don't think I would call it that. I think there really are people who genuinely believe that our food system--to use the phrase that gets use all the time--is broken. And that this is a symptom of wider problems of capitalism, of big agriculture, of big food processing, of fast food; global chains like McDonald's, retailers like WalMart. And, I think that these successive scares of 'fast food is bad for you,' and 'non-organic food is bad for you,' and 'you must eat local,' are, in fact, by and large well-intentioned. I wouldn't agree with them, because I don't think our food system is broken. But I think they are less fads than a way of trying to articulate and make clear to Americans a vision of a world where food and indeed society could be arranged differently.

Russ Roberts: That's very well said. I have to think about the Russian family that came to America, that we were connected to in the Jewish community in St. Louis, MO, and to help them become acultured to American society. The didn't speak any English; and we didn't speak any Russian; and we had about 7 words of Yiddish that we had in common. And so, it was a very interesting experience. And one of the first things we did, I've probably told this story, and I wrote about it in one of my books, I took them to a grocery store. And when they saw the produce section, they didn't think the American food system was broken. Let me tell ya'.

Rachel Laudan: No.

Russ Roberts: They wanted to--they just wanted to hang out there. Literally. And admire it. They were so--it's a cliché, almost; but they were overwhelmed by it. They were giddy. They just couldn't--they couldn't imagine it; and they were just blown away by it.

42:38

Russ Roberts: And so, you know, I think there is a--there are many things about the system that are broken. We subsidize corn and other agricultural products for political reasons that I think are awful, and terrible. But I do think that in those movements you are referring to, there is also a dissatisfaction, not just with the policies that have created that food system versus distorted it, I would say, but also with the choices that people make, that people just don't like. They don't like that other people are doing, or eating fast food. They don't like that other people are not buying local, that they are importing food. They don't like the choices that people make. And I think that's where it gets interesting.

Rachel Laudan: Yes. And I mean, sort of, riffing off that, I wouldn't say from it[?] exactly. It's--I mean, again, the whole discussion is full of ironies. Because, one of the concerns, as you say, with abundance is obesity. There's a lot of worry about people being obese. And yet, at the same time, we are worried about people wasting food. There is something to be said for not finishing the food on your plate.

Russ Roberts: Yes, there is.

Rachel Laudan: You are overweight because you have health issues and other issues. So, again, the value systems that underlie this are much more complex and tricky to negotiate than simple imperatives of, 'Don't waste,' or 'Eat local,' or what have you. And in every case they turn out to be much more complex.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. In my household--well, at my plate, just say it that way, self-control is always an issue. And I wish I left more on my plate as a form of character development. Very hard for me not to finish my food. It could be I've been condemned to that habit by my mother, or other genetic shortcomings. I don't know. But, wasting food is not a big problem in the Roberts' household. For better or for worse.

Rachel Laudan: I think for many of us. Yeah.

Russ Roberts: I guess--it's interesting--my weight right now is in a slightly better place than it was 6 months ago. I've reduced my carb consumption, which, as listeners know, is something we've talk about here. I think it does help. I think the low-carb diet, the challenge of it, is keeping on it. And that's something that I struggle with. But, I think one of the biggest reasons I'm successful at keeping my weight down is that my wife and I make less food for dinner than we used to. There are no seconds and thirds. It's basically--a nice plate of food. Which is fine. You don't get any happier after the second--the great irony is that after the second plate of food you are no happier than you were when you finished the first. You were full after the first, in some fundamental sense. But you had a longing. And that second plate of food doesn't really satisfy the longing, either. But, you wanted it anyway.

Rachel Laudan: Well, maybe, you know, a little moral tale in and of yourself about how people come to terms with the problems of abundance. Your mother was like my mother, saying, 'Finish everything on your plate.' And now, you are changing what's on the plate.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. That's right. And I think that's the reason I think some people don't go to those restaurants--that are close to all-you-can-eat. Because, they know they can't restrain themselves. Or they tie themselves to the mast and don't go in to start with.

Rachel Laudan: Yes.

46:29

Russ Roberts: So, the other thing I wanted to mention--it's a fascinating article; we'll put a link up to it; it's by Mary Eberstadt. And, she--again, you might have a different perspective on it than I do, and I'm not sure she's right, but it's provocative. And her view is that food is the new source of our taboos. It used to be sexual taboos that people had. Now, there are very few of those. A lot more things are tolerated than were before. But, we seem to have transferred a lot of our taboo-ness to food. Whether it's meat-eating, whether it's fats, trans-fats; smoking is a variation on it, of course; it's not literally food but it's about what we put in our mouths. So, we have all these--I think people--fad is not the right word, but people are judgmental about the choices that others make--they are judgmental about their own choices--in a way that wasn't the case 50 years ago. Thirty years ago. Even twenty years ago. What do you think?

Rachel Laudan: That is not the case in other countries. Either--I mean, we lived 15 years in Mexico, and it was a real shock coming back and seeing the moralization of food in this country. Where every bite should take--I mean, food is always moralized, of course; it has been since the beginning of time. But the extent to which that has happened in the United States is quite extraordinary. And again, I don't think it's just accidental. I think there is a sense that if you can persuade the consumer that choices are moral issues, you can include them in, or recruit them to, or demonstrate to them the importance of wider political concerns about everything--that I would really include moral [?] equality to more [?] things like weight being a sign of self-control and maturity. And, this has--food has become the kind of carrier for all this. Or for a large amount of this concern.

Russ Roberts: There's a brilliant skit on--I found it on YouTube; I don't know where it was from--but, the meat-eater who shows up at the vegetarian household for dinner. And as the vegetarian food is set out, the meat-eater says, 'Well, don't you have anything for me?' And the host says, 'Well, what do you mean? You can eat the other food.' And he says, 'Yeah, but I like meat. You didn't make anything for me.' And of course--my wife's a vegetarian; my daughter's a vegetarian. And they--they are not self-righteous about their vegetarianism. They don't demand that people comply with it in their cooking for them. They often even don't warn people; it's an interesting social issue: Should you warn someone that you're vegetarian, because then you don't eat some of the food that they make and they'll be upset; whereas if you tell them, then they have to make special food for you, and you are imposing costs on them, and you feel bad doing that. So, it is an interesting challenge. But that meat-eater who feels oppressed because there is no meat for him at the meal is--it's funny, because it's not the way the current culture works now. That taboo is, goes in the other direction. So, it's just an interesting thing of how we try to come to grips with that.

Rachel Laudan: Yes. And I think it's made social interaction more difficult. Because, you know, obviously so many social interactions take place over food. And, whereas before the assumption was that short of some real serious health or religious issue, when you are invited to join a group you would share food with that group, that was a bonding in many ways; now it is quite the reverse. And right from a very young age, children learn now that they have a choice. If they go to McDonald's they can choose which particular food they want. And, this is another case where choice, I think, is--is a great privilege, and allows people to express themselves in many ways. But, there are downsides. And one of the downsides is, find--or not downsides, challenging, challenges, is finding a new way of organizing social offense so that there are different ways of expressing communality.

51:39

Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's an interesting thing. I remember when I was in school, I think I was in--I was in 11th grade--but there was a notorious kid in the school who liked a warm hamburger. And his mother would bring him a warm hamburger every day. And, my attitude at that time was: That seems like not the healthiest thing for a child, to be told they can have exactly what they want. But that's our world. And, now, everybody gets exactly what they want. We get exactly what we want at Amazon. We get exactly what we want at our clothing. We get exactly what we want at the dinner table. It's not uncommon, at our dinner table, when we were raising our children, that kids would eat different things. Imposing a cost on--usually, my wife. Sometimes I was the cook. But, often, my wife. And she was happy to do it. She viewed it as a wonderful thing. But you know, some of that is--I think some of it our more child-centered, child-focused culture. But, a lot of it is just our desire for having it our way. You know, having it your way is what--I forget which fast-food's slogan, is it Burger King or McDonald's? I don't remember. It's not McDonald's. So, I think it was, the way Burger King tried to differentiate itself from McDonald's, as if somehow there was this extraordinary opportunity to avoid ketchup was going to transform their burger into something magnificent. But, it is an interesting thing, that, we're all a little bit spoiled. We want our meals tailored. And there's a great scene in that movie, The L.A. Story with Steve Martin where there's--it's an LA movie, right? It's Los Angeles, where every person's table has a unique order. You know--I think it's just coffee. I can't remember now, the scene. But there's a big, very detailed set of instructions. And Starbucks is a perfect example of that. The variety of choices that you are given is, would be bewildering and strange to somebody from 1950. Just to get a cup of coffee.

Rachel Laudan: Right. Sugar or no sugar? That would be it.

Russ Roberts: Right. Cream, no cream? But there were choices, right? There was black-and-white, and there was sugar/no-sugar. Now it's 'Splenda/Equal/Sweet-and-Low/Raw Sugar/Honey. Just on that dimension. And the same is true for the creamer, right? You don't just say you want milk in it. You've got half-and-half, whole, low-fat, skim, soy. Right? It's an amazing--some of it is just the incredible wealth and luxury of choice that we have. And some of it is a form of self-expression--as you are suggesting. A form of, even of identity.

Rachel Laudan: Yes. I think so.

Russ Roberts: Any thoughts on where that might be headed? The cultural side of food? You suggested that we'll "work it out." You have any thoughts on that, where we might be going?

Rachel Laudan: Coherent thoughts, I'm not sure. I think people have somehow to get happier with a routinized, their food choices. I think too much time and energy is going into them at the moment. People are coming to believe that if they subscribe to the Paleo diet, or the keto-diet, or some other diet, they can not only express themselves but probably prolong their lives in ways that I very much doubt they'll be able to. In many ways, it's obsessive. And makes people, I think, very unhappy, because these standards that are held out for people, whether they are extreme diets or whether it is brilliantly delicious food day after day, are so high that people have a constant sense of failure, I think, where food is concerned. Or many people do. That they can never achieve the Food Pyramid, plus truly delicious food, plus a keto-diet, or whatever the combination has to be. And I can't imagine that people will be able to keep up this degree of attention to food for the indefinite future. I think there will have to be some kind of shaking down, where people say, 'Okay, yes, we've got lots of food. Yes, we want it to be delicious. Yes, we want it to be healthy.' And here we do it in this kind of routinized way most of the time. So, I think I see this as a transition period. Just because of the practicalities of, you know, the pressure of feeding three times a day. It's hard to do well. What that routine will be, whether it will be that people essentially begin eating even more of their food away from home, at least in cities, whether it will be some kind of home delivery that takes the weight off the food preparer in the house, I have no idea. But I think something will have to shake out.

57:27

Russ Roberts: Are there things about that broken system that bother people that you think are important, that we ought to be trying to deal with that might make this better or worse? I'm thinking in particular about things like, obviously, the food subsidies are one. But there are a lot of people that want us to buy local. My wife belongs to a food co-op, a produce co-op that she gets a lot of satisfaction from. It's expensive; you don't get many choices. It's tasty; I like it. But a lot of these things are not solutions for the world; they are solutions for people who live in relatively comfortable material settings and cultures. And, you know, my view is: If you want to buy local and you want to eat carb-free, or you want to eat a lot of carbs; you want to follow the China diet, which I have a friend who does, which doesn't appeal to me at all, scientifically or [?]--that's your choice. As long as you don't impose it on me, I'm okay with it. But it does lead to a world where there's lots of choices. Any thoughts on--there's policy things that you're worried about that or that we ought to be doing that would make this easier or better?

Rachel Laudan: I'm not sure who 'we' is, here. Do I want the government to intervene more in food production and distribution? No, I don't think so. We have, already, a huge number of non-government organizations who are--with sometimes related, sometimes opposing agendas, working away. I tend to be rather laissez faire about this moment. I think both the issue of coping with choice and the issue of obesity will find solutions, but I don't have a kind of roadmap for what they would be. The more people who are trying different things, perhaps the better. I mean, obviously there are all kinds of small things that need to be done. It would be nice--I'm never quite clear about many of the things that are claimed to be bad about the system. I'm not sure how bad animal welfare really is. There's a disconnect, I think often between urban perceptions of animal welfare and what actually goes on in the country. As you say, many of these--waste is incredibly difficult to measure. And so, I have less-than-total confidence in many of the numbers that are flitted about, about food waste. And you could go on along these lines. So, no, I don't have a grand, either map of what is wrong or what to do about it. I do think with so many interested people, things will shift. They've shifted so fast in my lifetime, I cannot imagine that in another 20 years the scene will not look radically different.

Russ Roberts: I look forward to talking with you about it in 20 years.

Rachel Laudan: Okay. Happy to.

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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Greg Alder writes:

Economics is not my field of expertise, which is why I appreciate the service of Econtalk so much. But composting is.

So I can't help but make two points of correction about it: One, there's no minimum amount of matter needed in order to compost. That's no excuse. Two, fats and oils are fine to add to a compost pile. I've been doing so for 15 years.

Composting is not difficult or complicated, and I hate to see anyone dissuaded from trying because they are under the false impression that it is.

D writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

Jason writes:

This reminds of a very useful phrase I learned years ago: "It is better to waste food outside of your body, rather than inside."

Jonas writes:

I wish your guest would have undermined her thoughts with a little bit more weight or solid science, instead of just personal opinion or thoughts on how she perceives the world.

To me one of the least inspirational conversation in recent years.

Chuck writes:

We reach diminishing marginal returns on food just like anything else.

To an old world peasant, the all you can eat buffet is the height of luxury, but to affluent Americans it seems crass.

Once you've had your fill, you want the food to more than just fill you up.

James Pass writes:

Question for Greg Alder:

Greg has lots of experience with composting and he suggests that it's worthwhile to compost even on very small scales. I'm interested in learning about small-scale composting and I'm wondering if Greg can recommend a book or internet link. I currently put the small amount of food waste I have in a green bin, and the city waste management company makes compost with it and then sells it to the public. But if it's easy to make my own I'll put it in my small garden.

Greg Alder writes:

James Pass,

I think you'll enjoy keeping your food waste to turn into fertilizer / soil amendment for your small garden. I'm ridiculously possessive about my food waste and never give it to the city waste management company. To me, it's a resource.

These days, I turn all of my food waste into eggs via my chickens. But before I had chickens I let it decompose in the yard in a pile or a bin or a hole in the ground. There are so many ways to do it, according to your situation and amount of free time.

The best link on simple, realistic composting I can share is this video done by Charles Dowding, a British market gardener, titled "Making compost from garden and other wastes, the principles and some results": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kf6CGj7xpFE

A good companion to this video might be an article I wrote called "Fertile soil can be child's play": http://gregalder.com/yardposts/fertile-soil-can-be-childs-play/

So weird and cool to be talking about composting and soil fertility on Econtalk.

Mehdi writes:

I think this was not the strongest episode of Econtalk. Over all the talk, I did not get why Rachel is all for wasting food, which should have been answered in the very first response. The response is that well, wasting might be bad but there are other bads, which is a bit of weird argument.

Russ claims that food waste is faced like a religious issue, but it's not. It's an economic one. We all get upset if the resources, like money, get wasted by inefficient budgeting, and we want free markets to distribute it efficiently. If there is too much of the resource, like money, there will be dire consequences, such as inflation, which essentially wastes the money printed. Food waste is the same thing. It's about efficiency.

Alan Clift writes:

Mehdi, I thought Rachel covered why waste is okay with “We've got kind of three situations: You don't have enough food--well, that's a disaster, and nobody wants to have not-enough food; or, you have just-enough food, which is actually both incredibly difficult to achieve and very, very tricky, because you never know when there is going to be some fungal disease, climatic disaster, warfare; or, you have a surplus in the system.”

Maybe it's my mistake, but that preferred surplus causes waste.

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