Like many Americans my age, I was cajoled by my parents to finish all the food on my plate because people were starving somewhere. When I got a bit older and thought about the matter, I realized that my eating (or not eating) the food on my plate would have no effect on the people starving in some far away part of the world. However, I did internalize two lessons. One was that I should not waste food. The other was that there is always someone starving somewhere.
While food insecurity is a problem in the United States, we Americans waste a great deal of food. It is estimated that about 21% of the food that is harvested and available to be consumed is not consumed. This food includes the unconsumed portions tossed into the trash at restaurants, spoiled tomatoes thrown out by families ($900 million worth), moldy leftovers tossed out when the fridge is cleaned and so on. On average, a family of four wastes about 1,160 pounds of food per year—which is a lot of food.
On the national level, it is estimated that one year of food waste (or loss, if one prefers) uses up 2.5% of the energy consumed in the U.S., about 25% of the fresh water used for agriculture, and about 300 million barrels of oil. The loss, in dollars, is estimated to be $115 billion.
The most obvious moral concern is with the waste. Intuitively, throwing away food and wasting it seems to be wrong—especially (as parents used to say) when people are starving. Of course, as I mentioned above, it is quite reasonable to consider whether or not less waste by Americans would translate into more food for other people.
On the one hand, it might be argued that less wasted food would surely make more food available to those in need. After all, there would be more food.
On the other hand, it seems obvious that less waste would not translate into more food for those who are in need. Going back to my story about cleaning my plate, my eating all the food on my plate would certainly not have helped starving people. After all, the food I eat does not help them. Also, if I did not eat the food, then they would not be harmed—they would not get less food because I threw away my Brussel sprouts.
To use another illustration, suppose that Americans conscientiously only bought the exact number of tomatoes that they would eat and wasted none of them. The most likely response is not that the extra tomatoes would be handed out to the hungry. Rather, farmers would grow less tomatoes and markets would stock less in response to the reduced demand.
For the most part, people go hungry not because Americans are wasting food and thus making it unavailable, but because they cannot afford the food they need. To use a metaphor, it is not that the peasants are starving because the royalty are tossing the food into the trash. It is that the peasants cannot afford the food that is so plentiful that the royalty can toss it away.
It could be countered that less waste would actually influence the affordability of food. Returning to the tomato example, farmers might keep on producing the same volume of tomatoes, but be forced to lower the prices because of lower demand and also to seek new markets.
It can also be countered that as the population of the earth grows, such waste will really matter—that food thrown away by Americans is, in fact, taking food away from people. If food does become increasingly scarce (as some have argued will occur due to changes in climate and population growth), then waste will really matter. This is certainly worth considering.
There is, as mentioned above, the intuition that waste is, well, just wrong. After all, “throwing away” all those resources (energy, water, oil and money) is certainly wasteful. There is, of course, also the obvious practical concern: when people waste food, they are wasting money.
For example, if Sally buys a mega meal and throws half of it in the trash, she would have been better off buying a moderate meal and eating all of it. As another example, Sam is throwing away money if he buys steaks and vegetables, then lets them rot. So, not wasting food would certainly make good economic sense for individuals. It would also make sense for businesses—at least to the degree that they do not profit from the waste.
Interestingly, some businesses do profit from the waste. To be specific, consider the snacks, meats, cheese, beverages and such that are purchased and never consumed. If people did not buy them, this would result in less sales and this would impact the economy all the way from the store to the field. While the exact percentage of food purchased and not consumed is not known, the evidence is that it is significant. So, if people did not overbuy, then the food economy would be reduced that percentage—resulting in reduced profits and reduced employment. As such, food waste might actually be rather important for the American food economy (much as planned obsolescence is important in the tech fields). And, interestingly enough, the greater the waste, the greater its importance in maintaining the food economy.
If this sort of reasoning is good, then it might be immoral to waste less food—after all, a utilitarian argument could be crafted showing that less waste would create more harm than good (putting supermarket workers and farmers out of work, for example). As such, waste might be good. At least in the context of the existing economic system, which might not be so good.