When I was young and fickle, my grandmother would sometimes admonish me for not finishing my plate. “Think of all the starving children in Africa!” she would say, in an attempt to use guilt to motivate me. My reply, which usually ended the conversation, was: “Why don’t you pack it up and send it to them then?”
Pope Francis¬†on Wednesday denounced what he called a “culture of¬†waste” in an increasingly consumerist world and said throwing away goodfood¬†was like stealing from poor people.
“Our grandparents used to make a point of not throwing away leftover food. Consumerism has made us accustomed to wasting food daily and we are unable to see its real value,” Francis said at his weekly audience in St Peter’s Square.
“Throwing away food is like stealing from the table of those who are poor and hungry,” he said.
I must admit, I have a hard time dealing with the concept of a new pope. I was born in the early 80s, so John Paul II is very much the `canonical’ pope in my mind, the same way that, well, the Tim Burton/Michael Keaton Batman is the original Batman. The brief, tempestuous tenure of Pope “Ratzinger” Benedict can be likened to the strange turn that the Batman films took in the late 90s, when¬†Joel Schumacher took the reigns of the franchise, Robin showed up and the Batsuit acquired nipples. Given his focus on poverty, I really want to like this new pope – he has a leanness and focus which isn’t a million miles off from Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of Batman, but unfortunately he carries all the same self-serious baggage that sometimes weighed down the last few films.
But I digress. There are two potential reasons why we might consider wasting food to be odious. The first is that there is something morally unacceptable about waste when there are those that are suffering, regardless of whether or not the excess food could be transferred. The second is that somehow food wastage has a direct impact on those that are hungry (more or less what Christian Bale, I mean Pope Francis, is suggesting in the last quote).
The first criticism might hold¬†some¬†water if it was more commonly applied to other contexts than food, but it almost never is. How often have you used money less efficiently that you might have? For example, by booking a train later than you should have, or having that extra pint that you probably didn’t need? Aren’t you wasting money? Think of all the poor people who, by definition don’t have it. Or what about the time you sat in a class in university, and you failed to pay attention for five minutes – think of all the poor children of the world who¬†don’t have university.
In reality, we human beings are fairly inefficient creatures, but often we’re inefficient in one domain so we can be efficient in other domains. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about food wastage, so I might save money by avoiding waste. Then again, instead of spending time working to avoid waste, I might spend it working more, the returns to which (including those to charitable causes) might actually be higher. ¬†Given that the reasons for food wastage are quite varied, and there is no easy redistribution mechanism (I can’t ship my leftover pasta to Ethiopia in time for consumption there), the first criticism doesn’t get us very far.
What about the second? Let’s assume that whatever cognitive biases or strategies that lead to food wastage could be eliminated, tomorrow. What would happen? Assuming this is a purely demand-side effect, we should see a decrease in the price of food. Whether or not this will lead to a net reduction in hunger is an extremely complex and difficult question, as the world is full of poor people who are net producers AND net consumers of food. Whoever works on a banana plantation might be happy that occasionally I over-estimate how many bananas I can eat in a week.
The second criticism is even sillier given that there is plenty of more general wastage which, if re-directed, could easily¬†help the poor. Spend too much of your time sitting around, not sure what you want to do? Volunteer at a charity! Have money that you’ve been blowing on clothes you don’t really like and won’t wear too often? Give it to a charity with a good track-record of helping the poor. Unless you are chowing down on a turkducken¬†in the middle of a drought-stricken village, worry less about your food wastage and worry more about other ways you could be helping the poor.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to print this blog out and mail it to my grandmother.