Could higher food prices reduce food waste?

market produce
CC BY 2.0 Patrick Feller

Food waste is more than just a shame. It’s a terrible waste of natural resources, from the water used to irrigate crops to the energy necessary for transporting food from farm to table. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that 31 percent of food goes to waste in the U.S., while the National Resources Defense Fund puts that number at 40 percent.

I’ve written in the past about the dishonesty of cheap food: the prices Americans pay for most processed foods don’t really reflect the cost of production. The price of our packaged goods and fast food meals doesn’t reflect fair wages or unsubsidized grains. Not to mention the costs associated with the environmental damage of industrial farming.

Nathanael Johnson argues there’s yet another problem with cheap food: it makes it easier to waste. He writes:

“The ultimate reason we throw food away is that we don’t value it very much. It’s more efficient to leave peaches to rot in the field than to go to the trouble of finding a buyer.”

Americans spend a smaller percentage of their income on groceries than any other country. It seems reasonable that Americans should pay the true cost of their food, and maybe eat a little less along the way. Johnson argues that if food cost more, entrepreneurs would step in to make sure neither calories nor revenue go to waste.

On the other hand, we’re playing a difficult speculative game. Although elegant, I worry “the higher costs = less waste” argument is too simple. I wonder what the mechanisms would be that cause food costs to go up (Johnson makes the case for farmers producing less), and in turn find myself asking a series of unanswerable questions about the ensuing consequences. Would the cost of all types of calories go up proportionally? Would organic growers be affected more or less than conventional ones? Would healthy foods be even more out of reach for poorer communities?

Setting these conjectures aside, I agree with the premise that we need to value food more. If Americans took the time to appreciate where their food comes from, that would lead us to waste it less. We should probably pay more too, if it’s responsibly produced.

Tags: Economics | Food Security | Waste