Expert Q&A on food waste & inequality

During a webinar I hosted with Dr. Ken Foster and Dr. Jerry Shively on food waste and inequality, audience members submitted many questions we didn’t have time to answer. We’ve turned these questions into a public Q&A. To learn more about these topics, check out the book How to Feed the World and use the code 4FEED for a 20% discount.

Q: Have you seen an appreciable improvement in the food desert situation? Who takes the lead on coming up with innovations to address this situation?

A: I think what you are seeing in many cases is the encouraging confluence of both “top down” and “bottom up” approaches. By “top down” I mean efforts organized at an aggregated level, such as those being undertaken by the USDA to define and identify food access indicators for low-income communities in the US. Those data gathering and mapping activities require a systematic approach to measurement and identification, and it is appropriate and economically efficient for those efforts to be undertaken by government agencies. In the absence of coordinated effort, the necessary data probably wouldn’t be collected and disseminated. A few years ago, it wouldn’t have been possible. But now, with widespread application of digital mapping and data layering methods, it is becoming much easier to identify at-risk communities. This work helps facilitate conversations and research on the topic, and also improves our ability to undertake community planning and intervention. That leads me to the highly complementary “bottom up” efforts to address the problem. All over the country, citizens and communities are organizing themselves around the problem of food deserts, seeking solutions and sharing what works. If you’d like to learn more, I strongly suggest looking at the USDA Report to Congress entitled Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food – Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and their Consequences. Appendix D of that report summarizes a number of examples of community food projects, ranging from Boston’s Healthy Harvest Initiative to Fresno’s Fresh Access Project.

During the webinar, Dr. Shively provided a link to a map created and maintained by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) that provides user-friendly, comprehensive and searchable data on food access in the United States. The map is very useful for visualizing the nature of the “food desert” problem. You can access the map here.

Q: Would new developments on clean meat actually be affordable and accessible and contribute to equal access?

A: Some may not be familiar with the term “clean meat” or alternatively “cultured meat.” It involves growing meat (primarily muscle and fat) tissues without the need of an animal. Animal tissues are harvested and then cultured to grow meat tissue. Proponents of this technology point to a variety of issues with conventional meat production. It generates a lot of byproduct that is potentially environmentally harmful, often employs antibiotics that have been linked by some to antibiotic resistant microbes, leads to occasional food safety scares and requires a lot of land, water and feed grains to produce. Cultured meat has the potential to use a wider variety of potential feed sources because one doesn’t have to worry about palatability to the animals and byproduct wastes are more easily contained and dealt with than in convention animal agriculture. In 2013, Dr. Mark Post at Maastricht University demonstrated the technical feasibility of this process but his first hamburger cost $USD 330,000 to create. At least one private entity claims to have lowered this cost to about $USD 18,000 per pound for a highly-sanitary piece of meat grown with far less water and almost no land. Today, this cost is far too high to represent a short-run improvement for food insecurity and equal access, but the same could have been said for many past food production technologies which are now common-place. In fact, modern confined livestock and poultry production systems are relatively new and have only come to dominate modern production in developed countries in the last five decades. Before that, they would have been considered cost prohibitive. An optimistic believer in human ingenuity can easily foresee the day when our meat comes from cultured sources and is relatively inexpensive. In such a future, a greater proportion of mankind has access to this valuable source of protein and vitamins in their diets and the production is more sustainable. The downsides? Already struggling rural economies will see another source of local economic activity depart because production of cultured meat will occur in factories close to urban populations. Organic agriculture will also face new challenges because the primary source of organic fertilizer is animal manure, of which there will be far less available. But we won’t need to farm as much land if we are not growing grain for conventional livestock and poultry, leading to more open spaces for biodiversity and rural leisure activities.

Q: How can natural ecosystems and food webs be sustained considering the associated loss of biodiversity, deforestation, soil erosion, water use and contamination of air, land and water?

Sustaining natural ecosystems is the ultimate grand challenge for food security, since food production necessarily requires clean air, land and water as inputs. Despite that scientists have been focused on the web of life for decades, our understanding and appreciation for the interconnectedness of life on this planet is far from complete. In many ways, humankind is at a critical juncture. We’ve often operated as if our consumption didn’t matter. But it does, and it behooves us to develop better ways of measuring our impact on natural systems. Many of us are accustomed to reading nutrition labels to better understand the implications of our food choices for our nutrition and health. In the coming years, we will likely need to think more carefully about the environmental impacts of our food choices and incorporate those impacts into our decisions as consumers. Careful, research-based labeling of food characteristics, such as the environmental footprint associated with items, might allow us to make more informed choices. Already, there are interactive tools that allow you to calculate the green, blue and grey water footprint of everyday items found in your food basket, such as the one here.

Q: Regarding the elephant in the room, the tariffs now in play with the current administration, what are your thoughts for food security?

A: It’s becoming a bit trite to repeat this, but it stands mentioning once more; there are no winners in trade wars in the long run. The boat eventually rides a bit lower in the water for everyone. The primary driver of gains from trade are a country and people within a country having greater latitude to capture global comparative and competitive advantages in what they produce. Japan is an excellent example as far as food and agricultural production is concerned. As a densely-populated island nation, land for agriculture is very scarce. Non-agricultural uses thus forced the price of land to levels that make agriculture uncompetitive on the global scale. Global free trade has allowed Japan to steer its economy away from agricultural production toward other higher-valued uses of the land. Without free international trade in food and agricultural products, Japan would be forced to produce more food domestically at high cost to its consumers. Farmers would be no better off because the increased prices would capitalize into things like land values but because farming was not the highest potential valued use for the land, it is unlikely that land owners will be better off than they would have been with trade and probably worse off after paying high prices for their food. What does this mean concerning the impact of trade restrictions on food security? It’s not good news because in this world with higher food prices, those who can least afford food now are likely to have their access reduced.

Q: To get people to look at food waste in the United States differently, would it make sense to change the we way write about income/food consumption (the richer we are, the less we spend on food) and use income/waste (the richer you are, the more you pollute in terms of food waste)?

A: This is essentially what Dr. Foster suggested in his comments during the webinar. That is, a change in our culture and the way we view food loss. In the United States, we are now two or three generations removed from people who witnessed widespread hunger. Guilt is not a good long term cultural change motivator so I don’t think stories about “the old days” when people ate moldy meat from their home smokehouse and stored potatoes in manure lined trenches to keep them from freezing will generate long term change. Besides, we would never and should never eat food in this condition, although people who have to do so don’t waste food. Better motivators are positive ideals such as protecting our environment as the questioner suggests. Peer-pressure around these ideals can be very effective. If you think your neighbor is reducing food waste (even if they aren’t) then you are more likely to reduce food waste.

Q: Are there strategies of how to feed those in refugee camps that can include the indigenous knowledge of the residents or for developing new ways for the refugees to produce some food in their harsh environments? Could this be a way to change a hopeless condition completely dependent on the changeable whims of donors?

A: It probably depends a bit on the reasons for the refugee situation. Many refugees are political, economic or armed conflict casualties. However, just like the Native Americans of this country, today’s waves of refugees are not settled on productive agricultural lands. Turning those areas into productive landscapes presents a nearly prohibitive enterprise. This question reminds us that the first chapter of the book, How to Feed the World, is about population and migration. The real “problem” inherent in refugee situations is usually that they can’t safely go back where they came from and there is no other place willing to accept them. Migration is likely the optimal solution (well, the optimal solution would have been preventing whatever event created their plight originally) given historical evidence.

Q: What about indigenous communities who have lived off the land for thousands of years but now face food insecurity because of climate change which is disproportionately a result of developed countries like the US and their food systems and consumption patterns which go way beyond food waste? Won’t exporting the Western diet through trade or encouraging this diet through “access to greater technology” only serve to aggravate climate change?

A: This question has a lot in it. Ultimately, consumers are sovereign in free markets. That means they act on their preferences and get the sort of food they are willing and able to pay for. Cost has been a driving force and because many of the social and environmental factors that the questioner is concerned about do not get directly priced into the food products that cause them, we make some sub-optimal choices as consumers. Perhaps there might be a tradable permit that requires producers and processors to purchase permits for the externalities they produce. This creates a market for social and environmental consequences whereupon interest groups, concerned individuals and low-emissions farms can compete with conventional agriculture for the permits. Food will be more expensive in terms of its grocery store price but “more affordable” in the longer term assuming those who bid for the permits do so intelligently and with accurate information. This takes us back, though, to education as a key ingredient to sustainability and food security.

In 2011, The Economist magazine published a comprehensive review article on feeding the world called The 9 billion-people question. The article covers, in abbreviated form, some of the same issues as our book How to Feed the World. It is a complementary resource to the material in our book and is loaded with useful examples, including some of the examples and evidence that we mentioned in passing during the webinar.


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