Is Food Waste Really Such a Waste?

That's the question Marc Bellemare asks in an article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday.  The subtitle points out an important truth that likely seems counter intuitive to the masses, "The optimal amount of waste is not zero."  Note, Marc doesn't say food waste isn't a potential problem or that we ought not think about ways of reducing waste.  Rather, let's not be wasteful in trying to prevent waste.  That is, we could end up expending more resources to save food than we reap in benefits, which of course is wasteful.  

Here are a couple key paragraphs:

Moreover, the optimal amount of food waste is not zero. Even the most efficient supply chain isn’t frictionless. If you are like me, your purchases of fresh fruits and vegetables more often than not reflect how you’d like to eat rather than how you actually eat. When you go out for dinner, you might end up not liking your meal, or you might order too much and not bring the leftovers home. Some of these issues may be solvable in theory, but the closer we get to zero waste, the more expensive trying to eliminate waste altogether would become.

This is especially important to understand given that “saving” edible food from going to waste is not the same thing as sending it to feed the hungry. Popular discussions often seem to implicitly assume that wasted food could be somehow reallocated to feed the poor at little to no cost. But if lower levels of food waste have any positive effect on food security, it’s far from obvious. The U.N. says that the 5.9 billion people who live in developing countries and the 1.2 billion in industrialized ones waste roughly the same amount of food—about 715 million tons a year. As food becomes an increasingly small fraction of a household’s budget, wasting food becomes cheaper relative to other expenditures.

The article covers some of the the same issues Marc and colleagues addressed in their academic article in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics.