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The Eleven-Cent Dilemma


ATLANTA – As it was early, I thought I could have a bite just in case my next meeting lasted longer than expected. On the drive-thru window I ordered coffee and apple pie. “One pie is 89 cents, sir; would you like two for one dollar?” I hesitated: either I could eat the extra one later that evening and get 260 calories or I can squander it anyway if I am not hungry at all. “Just one, please,” I replied.
The apple pie in the story weighs only 80 grams, a micro-fraction of what I am going to talk about but it helps me to introduce the subject. Gross reports estimate that some 25-30% of the total food production in rich countries is mercilessly thrown away. (These percentages exclude waist gains, a different but real kind of waste.) Though we are dealing here with quite large numbers, the question to ask is not how much of that chunk could be taken to poor children; we well know that transporting provisions to empty mouths would cost much more than the stuff itself. (Thousands of sheep are killed in Australia every time their demand is low; animal rights defenders are more concerned about the how than the why sheep are slaughtered). The actual concern is the large volumes of oil and fresh water that are used to produce and distribute the food to be dumped and the huge costs of disposing the food waste.
As expected, the problem is most crucial in U.S., where the average income per capita can buy the most food. A recent report of the
Public Library of Science estimates that food waste in this country is around 40%, the production of which uses roughly 25% of the total freshwater consumption in America and some 300 million barrels of oil per year, approximately half a month of the States oil demand. Furthermore, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, 12% of the solid waste generated in U.S. was food scraps, out of which less than 3% was recovered for composting or hog feeding. Making things even more disturbing, landfills are the largest emitter of human related methane, a greenhouse contaminant 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Although waste weigh estimates are not readily available for most countries, we can easily guess that worldwide medium-to-high income people also throw away hundreds of tons of food every day. This is not an issue to be handled by government agencies or international agencies—of course they can help; raising prices by decree or agreement is not a solution. The corrective duties rest on consumers and producers. One, it is the duty of every single individual who has never known (or might have forgotten) what real hunger is; two, it is the responsibility of every food company and their marketing agencies.
As for people, I can hardly think of any other behavioral change—buying just what is to be eaten—which is both easy to put into practice and powerful in social impact. The habit modification is about refraining from doing as opposed to taking action. We do not need to join any charity, send money to any fund or provide assistance to any group. Simply by only getting what we need, we will save money; by keeping the refrigerator half empty, we will stay healthier. Unexpectedly, without aiming at that goal, we also somehow become better citizens. Corporations on their side, as part of their social responsibility, should tune their logistics plans to produce and distribute only what is to be consumed, not what can be packed into customers by advertising.
Cutting down food waste should become our daily win-win choice. We win as we evade the temptations to exceed our nutritional daily requirements. The environment wins because Mother Earth receives less waste. The resulting job cutting considerations may make us falter. Still is it not immoral to use food for damaging our Planet? The truth is that eleven-cent apple pies should never be baked.

Gustavo Estrada
Engineer & Writer