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Food Waste Interview with UBC’s Jim Vercammen

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Here is an interview that I did for my radio show “Trash Talkin'” with LFS professor Jim Vercammen.


Why do we waste so much food?

Businesses waste so much food because its economically rational for them to waste food. Its not rational for a society to waste food. But for a business owner, you want to let consumer have a lot of choice. So, you have apples on display. You know that consumers like to pick out the nice perfect apples and leave behind the not so perfect ones. So, you let the consumer pick out the good ones, and the not so good ones you throw away. And, that’s rational. That’s a good business strategy compared to bundling everything where you force the not so good stuff with the good stuff. You make consumer think that they get more value by wasting.

And, the other reason is you never want to run out of stuff. Because if it costs you, say, 50 cents to but a head of lettuce, and you can sell it for a 1.50, if you run out of something you have just lost a dollar margin. But, if you waste something, you’ve only lost 50 cents. So, its economically rational to waste, in that sense.

Why do consumers waste food?

Cheap food, of course. If you look at North America, relative to our total income we are paying maybe 15% or less of our income on food. So, its the idea that food is very inexpensive and portion sizes seldom match with what we want. Its meant or a family of four but there’s only two of you. You don’t want to have leftovers again the next couple of nights, so it gets wasted. Its just that we are so busy and we aren’t very good time managers and we are not cooking at home that much as it is. So, when we do cook, we end up wasting.

Restaurants do the same kind of thing. They give you excessively big portions. It makes them look like a good place. They want to satisfy the hungriest person not the least hungry person, so there is food wasted there. They’ll bring a whole loaf of bread to the table and you will only nibble at it.

Its become ingrained. We are a throwaway society. Everything is cheap, and so is food. You just kind of view it as disposable. You don’t think about the externality costs the landfill costs, the co2 emissions from disposing of that food. And, you don’t realize that, by you consuming it the water alone that went into that food probably 1000s and 1000s of litres of water in one serving of food that you wasted. And, that’s impacting the capacity to produce food in another part of the country, or the capacity to sell food to other countries. You just don’t internalize that classic externality.

Have we always wasted food?

We are certainly not alone here in N America. 20 years ago, when I first started at UBC I was sent to China for a UBC exchange delegation to try and get some partnerships with Chinese universities. They wanted to treat me nice. But, I think that the Chinese have a reputation for having these big banquets. And, every night was a banquet. I was amazed by how much food left over on the plates afterwards. Now, I was told that its not truly wasted because there it would be fed to the pigs. So, at least it was being recycled. But, China, given that a lot of people there were actually hungry, had a notorious problem of food waste as well. And, in other places they have problems with food even before it gets to the retailer. It rots in storage and all sorts of things. I think society has had a lot of problems with food because they did not know how to preserve it. But, I think that now we just don’t care.

Do we pay more because of the food we waste?

Absolutely. Consumers don’t realize that it is another externality. The fact that we want to pick out the best stuff and have the store throw out the rest, the fact that we want the store to have excess stock so that we never run out and we want to come and get our lettuce. That is a cost to be factored into higher prices.

Why don’t we care?

We do care. But, As an individual given what everybody else is doing I have an incentive to deviate. I have an incentive to free ride on the system. I have an incentive to leave the best produce in and leave the rest for everybody else. So, if we all act in our self interest, we don’t internalize the costs that it has on other shoppers, or the effect that it has on the landfill, or on Co2 emissions. Even though we care as a society, individually our self interest leads the market to fail.

Written by danielscheppke

April 24th, 2013 at 8:26 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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