Reducing Food Waste - Where's the Incentive?

In recent years, there has been a lot attention being focused on reducing food waste. While I have argued for more nuance than one often sees in popular exhortations to reduce waste, the issue is important: it would be nice to find ways to save all the resources that go into producing food that ultimately winds up in the garbage.

A number of discussions over the past couple months have led to an aspect of this problem that hasn’t received much attention. Namely, what is the incentive of food producers and manufacturers to reduce waste? Or, what are the most effective mechanisms to reduce waste?

One way of reducing waste is what we might call the “demand side” strategy. Try to convince consumers to consume all of what they buy and throw out less. Our stomachs and pantries are only so large, and as a result, this presumably means consumers would ultimately buy less food. In economic terms, this leads to a downward shift in demand, which results in lower prices and less food sold. For producers, this is certainly a bad outcome: selling less food at lower prices means lower revenues and profits. From the perspective of a food producer, all they care about is whether the product sells. What you do with it after you buy it is of little consequence to the seller. As such, one might wonder how much incentive food producers and sellers have to reduce waste, at least via this demand side strategy. To boot - we don’t know for sure whether consumers are better or worse off. They pay lower prices but also buy less food, and as a result the impacts on consumers is ambiguous.

A different way to try to reduce food waste might be called a “supply side” strategy. One challenge with popular conceptions of food waste is that they seems to imply there are large inefficiencies in food supply chains. That some people seem to indirectly imply that farms, food manufacturers, and grocers are losing or throwing out food that they could profitably sell. To be sure, there are likely some inefficiencies in the food supply chain, but food and ag are tend to be competitive, low margin businesses which makes it hard to believe they’re leaving dollar bills lying around that they could easily pick up. To incentivize these firms to reduce waste, loss, and spoilage, something has to change to reduce the cost of preservation. That “something” is likely investment in research and the creation of technologies that enable farms and food manufacturers to affordably make use of food that might otherwise have been unsalable. An old example might be the advent of canning or refrigerated rail cars. More modern examples might include better grain storage bins or storage management practices, vacuum packaging, high pressure pasteurization, etc.

In economic terms, these technologies can be conceptualized as shifting the supply curve downward shift - i.e., lowering the marginal cost of delivering a given quantity of food to the market. Such a shift would lower the price of food while enabling more more food to be sold. Consumers are definitely better off: they get to have more food at lower prices. Whether producers as a group are better off from the supply shift depends on how sensitive producers and consumers are to price changes, but producers who are early adopters of the new technology are almost certainly better off.

Whether the demand-side or supply-side strategy leaves “society” better off (at least as defined by producer profits and consumers’ economic well-being) is not completely predictable because it depends on relative elasticities of supply and demand for the foods in question, among other factors. Ignoring any externalities from food that is thrown out, I would generally expect the “supply side” strategy to be better: we know it makes consumers better off and likely makes producers better off too (though not always). But, it ultimately results in more food being sold and potential (and perhaps ironically) more consumer waste. So, the big unanswered question is the nature and size of the “externality” of food thrown away.