Left-Wing Think Tank “United States Department of Agriculture” Concludes Capitalism Is The Cause of Food Waste

Nicholas Kristof has recently informed me that most of what I do is relatively useless, and that the only solution is to blog more (tweets are cool too). Ever since he opened my eyes to the fact that half of the world’s population has two X chromosomes, I’ve hung on his every word, so here goes.

That said, although he thinks sociologists are irrelevant because of their left-leaning (reality-leaning?) biases, I believe I can make a contribution through a somewhat different tactic. In particular: you wouldn’t know it (because of all the jargon we use!) but social movement scholars have identified a “radical flank effect” by which reformist, mainstream movements are helped by lunatics on the fringes who say crazy shit and thus make aforementioned movements seem less threatening and therefore more likely to win concessions.

A few weeks ago, the USDA released a major new study quantifying “food waste” (well, technically “food loss”*) in America. It’s the first since 1997, which suggests that the issue is gaining some momentum, or that I’m deluding myself into thinking that other people care about the things I care about. Over at “Wasted Food“, Jonathan Bloom – the U.S.’s leading public intellectual on this issue – has some well-reasoned analysis. In the spirit of “radical flank effects”, though, I’m going to drop some completely unpalatable and politically DOA thoughts in the hope that they will help the well-reasoned efforts of others to move forward. Somehow.

What the Report Says

  • About 31% of the food available at retail level doesn’t get eaten, which totals to some bad-shit high figure like 133 billion pounds per year or 429 pounds per person. The important thing to note here is that this is readily acknowledged as a massive underestimate. It ignores crops that never get harvested because of low prices (~10% by some estimates), produce culled for aesthetic or cosmetic reasons (up to 50% depending on the product), or losses in processing or manufacturing (which, as documented by Tristram Stuart, are both huge and deliberately imposed on processors by powerful supermarket chains). It’s also an underestimate even within the report’s authors’ own ambit, since, as they note, their numbers suggest that more food gets eaten than is humanly possible (obesity epidemic notwithstanding). And it doesn’t include food that could feed humans, but which we instead feed to animals, that in turn is converted to a smaller number of calories of meat. You can debate whether this constitutes “waste”, but insofar as the food system exists to feed people (it doesn’t, really), it’s not a particularly efficient way of doing it, so it’s waste in my book blog.
  • The food losses that get counted in the report sum up to about 141 trillion calories per year. This is a fun and media-friendly figure because it’s unfathomably large and implies something about hungry people in Africa. It’s also really, really meaningless. If you  look at calories, about half of the “food” we “lose” consists of added fats and sweeteners, which raises some questions about the meaning of “loss” and, dare I say, “food”. Moreover, it perpetuates the myth that the solution to food waste and hunger is to have someone standing by the bin / dumpster / household trash receptacle capturing whatever is left and giving it to the homeless person down the street. It’s a good way to get kids to eat leftovers but, as I learned at the food bank, the relationship between what gets thrown out and what is needed is a weak one and moving calories around is not the way you address hunger.
  • The total “value” of food waste is $161.6 billion. Of course, the “cost” of food waste is best measured in lost water, land, or labor. But even if we decide to attach a dollar figure to waste, we need to really ask ourselves who, exactly, bears the “cost” and why exactly it counts as a “cost” in the first place. As I’ve ranted previously, it’s no skin off Monsanto’s back if the seeds it sells don’t actually grow food to feed people. And it’s great news for farmers if distributors are purchasing 3,796 kcal/day from them, even if the average person (factoring in the elderly and children) only needs 1,900. And, to offer my favorite example (I think I’m showing my class background here…), grocery stores love it that you have to buy a big-ass bunch of cilantro that you can’t possible use, because they can sell it for more than a small-ass bunch of cilantro. As far as I can tell, waste keeps the dollars flowing and the economy humming. If that’s what you care about, throwing food out is not much of a waste at all.

The Unhappy Conclusion

At this point, I’m fairly used to meaningless platitudes about how reducing food waste is a quick fix to the global food system. To its credit, the USDA report has a healthily realistic take on possibilities for major reductions in food waste. Quoting an older report from the General Accounting Office, they observe:

From a business standpoint, the value of food product saved for human use should be equal to, or greater than, the cost of saving it. To the extent that the costs exceed value, good business judgment dictates that the loss is an acceptable cost. In the course of preparing this report, no material has been found that would indicate that opportunities were knowingly overlooked by business owners to conserve food at an acceptable cost. The profit motive should dictate against such loss.

Long and the short of it: food waste happens because a business model that involves wasting food (through cosmetic standards, pre-packaged perishables, and rampant overproduction to avoid missing any sales) is more profitable than one that doesn’t involve wasting food. Capitalist firms waste food because they are doing their job: creating “value” not in the forms of meals or satisfied stomachs, but shareholder returns.

Bloom and his U.K. compatriot Tristram Stuart both write that reducing food waste is a “triple bottom line” solution that can feed people, protect the environment, and raise profits. But they need to give capitalism a bit more credit. If there were money to be made from reducing food waste, the thousands upon thousands of managers, engineers, and technicians whose livelihoods depend on squeezing every possible penny out of our food system would have found them long ago.

An Attempt to be Constructive

Okay, so revolution or nothing, right? It’d be a cheap way to end this post, so I’ll make an effort to be a bit less nihilistic. Even if we accept that “capitalism” is going to be our economic model for the foreseeable future, we can still acknowledge that solutions to problems within that system can come from outside of it. That is to say, the market doesn’t fix itself: people organized into networks, organizations, and movements do. So, since I’ve never bothered articulating what I actually think should be done about food waste, I’ll make a quick attempt to articulate a program that’s serious about reducing food waste without turning it into a band-aid that distracts us from the myriad other problems with our food system:

  • Reform Agricultural Subsidies. This one is obvious but not really being discussed by anyone talking about food waste. Crop insurance programs, as they currently exist, allow farmers to plant with almost zero financial risk without any regard for the market for the food-like substances they produce. Given that, despite our dire financial straits, we’ve somehow found $240 billion to spend mostly on subsidizing corn and soy to feed cows and displace Mexican peasants in the last decade, it seems completely reasonable that we could use subsidies to make organic, local, and ethical food cheap and available. More localized systems could go a long way in reducing waste.
  • Introduce Painfully High Landfilling Taxes. The E.U. has already done this, and many are crediting the E.U. landfilling directive with sparking new interest in food waste reduction initiatives and donations. And hey, maybe as an after effect, it would discourage stores from marching along with the worldwide trend towards locking and or poisoning their dumpsters, since scavengers are – in the end – only leaving them a bit lighter. But, crucially, landfilling taxes have to be coupled with bans on shoving food waste onto others – like, for example, our food bank which threw out WalMart’s surfeit of cakes for them.
  • De-Commodify Food. Food is a stupid thing to treat as a commodity. Demand for it is inelastic (you can only eat so much of it) and you can’t substitute it for other goods (because, well, you die if you don’t have it). So it doesn’t really work in a growth-based, capitalist economic model, unless you find dumb other things to do with ever-increasing food production, like converting it into bio-fuels or introducing “anaerobic digestion” (which creates demand for food waste, which is also, well, stupid). This is fairly off the deep end politically, but it’s not utopian: as the great E.P. Thompson documents, even in early capitalist England, people still saw food suppliers (mostly bakers) as public servants who worked for a fair allowance, not a profit. Our notion of food as a commodity is uniquely modern, utterly moronic, and the root of contemporary food waste. With all the talk on the left about a “universal basic income”, maybe we should start with “universal foodstamps”?

Note the absence of calls for greater consumer awareness, “voting with your dollar”, and/or learning to eat your leftovers. These sorts of reforms – the targets of most campaigns – are good, but when you look at the size and power of the interests behind food waste, relying on individual, atomized consumers to change things is bringing a spork to a gunfight.

- – – – -

* The difference stems from whether you include “loss” from shrinkage, pests, peels, etc. versus “waste”, which goes unconsumed because of human action.

Gleaning the Gleanings

As much as I like to think dumpster diving is in some ways inherently political, there are times when the whole thing can feel incredibly self-involved. And so, in the perpetually problematic desire to “give back”, I’ve been volunteering in food redistribution (again).

I like this charity, even though it’s a charity and not a “movement”, more than many, because it continues a long European tradition—gleaning—and provides food that is actually healthy. Every Sunday, the “Gleaner’s Tent” takes the leftover produce from one open-air market in the 19th and distributes it to an eclectic group of punks, retirees, and immigrants.

There’s one step I left out, though. After we get the food from the distributors, we sort it. The head of the tent is proud that the food we give out is (almost) as good as the food people are buying a few meters away. But it doesn’t come that way when we ask suppliers for their leftovers. On Sunday, we had a hyper-abundance of mangoes (hey, it’s better than cake), and I was assigned to cull the good from the not-so-good. And so I did, chucking the truly desultory and inedible fruits into a rapidly-filling organic compost bin behind me.

When I thought I was nearly done, another volunteer—a migrant from West Africa—looked somewhat bemusedly at my work. She clearly knew more about mangoes than I did, and began grabbing fruits that I thought had made the cut. A split-second of contemplation determined that two-thirds of them were unfit for human consumption, and they joined the rest in the bin. I didn’t know what to think. There were hungry people, and we didn’t have nearly enough gleanings to feed them all.

When the line finally started moving, though, I had a better understanding. Just like at the food bank, people—that is, hungry and poor people—did not just take what they were offered. They reached for the brightest, the biggest, and the freshest, and haggled and traded to get something better than what we pushed onto them. There was a lot left over—so much, in fact, that I wound up gleaning the gleanings, reaching into that compost bin and taking a half-dozen mangoes that I had been convinced someone would want but which had been left behind.

I’ve been thinking a lot about questions of “value” as it relates to waste. Originally, like a good Marxist, I concluded that we waste because, under capitalism, food is a commodity valued based on its capacity to be exchanged, not its ability to be used. I’m ready to concede that this was is a jejune and simplistic point. Sure, maybe we waste food because we don’t “value” labor, animals, the environment, or nutrition. But we also waste it because of what we do value: taste, appearance, convenience, abundance. Waste starts to seem more intractable when you look at it that way, as a “positive effort to organize the environment”, as anthropologist Mary Douglas puts it.

The mangoes were edible. They were probably even nutritious. But they tasted pretty bad. And maybe it’s only from a position of privilege that eating the crappy leftovers seems like a good idea.

Bleach

The decay spreads over the State, and the sweet smell is a great sorrow on the land. Men who can graft the trees and make the seed fertile and big can find no way to let the hungry people eat their produce.  Men who have created new fruits in the world cannot create a system whereby the fruits may be eaten. And the failure hangs over the state like a great sorrow.

The works of the roots of the vines, of the trees, must be destroyed to keep up the price, and this is the saddest, bitterest thing of all.  Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground.  The people came for miles to take the fruit, but this could not be.  How would they buy oranges at twenty cents a dozen if they could drive out and pick them up?  And men with hoses squirt kerosene on the oranges, and they are angry at the crime, angry at the people who have come to take the fruit…

Burn coffee for fuel in the ships. Burn corn to keep warm, it makes a hot fire. Dump potatoes in the rivers and place guards along the banks to keep the hungry people from fishing them out. Slaughter the pigs and bury them, and let the putrescence drip down into the earth.

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange…

And in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath…”

- John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

Everywhere you go, it’s the same story. Homeless recyclers in San Francisco who eke out a living by redeeming aluminum cans claim they’re being stopped and cited for rooting through the garbage. Food Not Bombs claims that more and more stores that once furnished the ingredients for free, collaboratively prepared, vegan meals are installing trash compactors. An itinerant Hungarian diver I spoke to recently told me, “No matter where you go, it’s getting harder.” Capitalism is reclaiming its waste.

On the surface, it seems absurd that anyone would bother to guard their garbage. But, in various guises, it’s happening. I’ve seen it particularly acutely in New York. First, employees at the Trader Joe’s on 14th Street started harassing divers outside the store and threatening trespassing tickets. The hot food bar on the Lower East Side no longer let the freegans come in and take what they were about to pitch. And then the D’Agostino’s on 38th and 35th started rushing their garbage out to the curb just a few seconds before the sanitation truck arrived.

Still, I always thought the tales about stores pouring bleach on their food were apocryphal. That was, until this Saturday. I opened up a dumpster legendary for an unfathomable smorgasbord of pre-packaged foods only to discover that every yogurt, every pack of meat, every loaf of bread, every plastic container of fair-trade vegan organic quinoa salad, had been methodically and meticulously slashed open. And, in the deep wounds that marred every item of the otherwise unblemished food, there was the unmistakable smell of bleach.

I should say at this point that I’m ambivalent about whether I should be a dumpster-diver. Although my current income is low (hovering around $0/month), I still have the sense that—as someone with means—I should be “voting with my dollar” for some positive alternatives. Food doesn’t grow in dumpsters, and for local, vegan, organic food to become affordable and available, people like me need to support it. The fact that I sometimes listen to my iPod on the walks home from my dives makes me inconsistent; the fact that I occasionally buy food from the same stores I’m diving just makes me a hypocrite.

When I’m diving, though, I meet people who really seem to need the food. For some, dumpster diving gives them a sense of autonomy and self-reliance they could never get from food stamps. Others, I’m fairly sure, would just go hungry were it not for the stores’ surplus. On Saturday, I gazed at the yogurt graveyard alongside an elderly couple: they were, not incidentally, the ones willing to brave the health risks and eat the bleached food.

My last post was a long tirade against supermarkets, so why not pile on a little more criticism. Stores usually claim that the reason they don’t donate food is that it’s too time consuming and expensive (they’d probably proffer the same excuse for why what they do donate is sometimes inedible crap). But individually slashing hundreds of yogurts takes longer than putting them in a box for the food bank. Stores aren’t trying to save time or money; they’re trying to ensure that food remains a commodity that we can only have access to if we buy it.

Pouring bleach on the garbage is another striking admission of guilt. I’ve been told to my face by supermarket managers that they donate “everything that’s still safe for people to eat” to charity. The corollary is that anything in their dumpsters must be spoiled, rotten, and dangerous. But if this were true, there’d be no need to pour bleach on it: why add poison to poison? The reason dumpsters have to be locked is not to protect us: it’s to protect the proverbial bottom line, by convincing us to buy what we could once get for free.

As for the rest, well, if not cake, let them eat bleach.

Bears Don’t Eat Onions

Where the magic happens.

Where the magic happens.

I think I felt the stupidest when I gave out the gluten-free Wonton Wraps. Admittedly, there are a lot of times at my job where I’ve wondered, “Is anyone going to eat this?” I certainly want to believe that someone is going to be happily surprised by the wave of pomegranates we’ve been packing, and as a vegan, I can’t help but be excited when we put seitan in our boxes. Nonetheless, with studies showing that around 50% of Emergency Food Boxes wind up in the trash—owing to a mismatch between what clients want and what they get, and our reluctance to trust poor people to choose for themselves—it’s hard to be optimistic.

By contrast, the bears get a be a bit pickier. Our food bank donates its organic waste—the stuff that doesn’t make it into the boxes—to BearArizona, a for-profit Bearamusement Park. Bears aren’t particularly choosy, but the staff of BearArizona made it clear to me early on during my work that bears really did not like onions. And so no onions are put onto the BearArizona pallet. Recently, though, they—the employees, not the bears—have complained about the low quality of the food we’re giving them: apparently some of it is too rotten even for the animals.

It’s not really our fault, though. Every day, our truck comes back with the latest surplus from Flagstaff’s supermarkets. I am, of course, glad that so many of them donate, but the carelessness with which the donations are made can be frustrating. Often, we find boxes full of apple cores, rinds, and peels or long-expired, rotten milk. Both myself and the other employee who works in the refrigerator are neurotic anti-wasters, but even we can’t conceive of how much of it could ever be eaten. We weigh donations before they are sorted, however, so stores get a tax deduction even for “food” there’s no way anyone is going to eat. We almost certainly gave New Frontiers a write-off for those WonTon Wraps, for instance, even thought I’d bet my left arm they are currently spewing methane in a landfill.

And so, to summarize, for-profit corporations donate some food and some garbage to a non-profit, but they count all of it as donated food, getting a tax-write off. The government claims it doesn’t get enough money from taxes, so it is cutting food stamps, which drives people to come to said non-profit food bank. The non-profit takes charitable donations in cash from good-hearted people and then pays its employees to sort out the supermarket’s garbage, which is then given to a for-profit wildlife park, which pays nothing for the service.

There are many perversities in the emergency food system, but I’ll elaborate on just one. There is a fundamental disconnect between what gets donated and what people actually need and want. Some of the stores producing and donating the most surplus are the highest-end ones. I don’t think this is coincidence: it’s a consequence of the bewildering array of options they offer, catering to every conceivable dietary niche (that includes veganism) with a range of specialty products that are so high-margin they can afford to discard a portion of them so as never to miss a potential sale. But the people who come to the food bank by-and-large aren’t gluten free and don’t want soy mayonnaise. They are feeding big families with limited resources, and want familiar—which means, affordable—food that they know how to use.

I’ve been writing on the long-delayed “freegan book” again, and sifting through some of the recent reports and policy proposals to deal with food waste that have emerged. Almost all of them see increasing donations to groups like the food bank as a crucial part of solving the problem. But when we fill emergency food boxes with dragon fruit and tempeh burgers, are we actually reducing waste by doing this or just pushing it further downstream? And when someone throws out those Wonton Wraps, should we blame the poor for their profligacy, or the company which produced something no one wanted in the first place?

Let Them Eat Cake

Baked goods have a somewhat legendary status among dumpster divers.  In the anarchist travelogue Evasion, the author shoplifts and hitch-hikes his way across middle America subsisting almost entirely off of bagels.  On freegan.info trash tours, we rarely could resist the temptation to stop at Dunkin Donuts—even though most of us were vegan and we generally tried to promote the idea that dumpster-diving provided healthy food.

But, as far as I can remember, we never checked the dumpsters of the local food bank.  If we had, we might have found them awash with cake.  It’s a bit like that scene from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows where everything the characters touch in a vault suddenly triples, threatening to engulf them in treasure, except replace the golden goblets with muffins.  We’re practically at war with the stuff: we cram extra bagels and cookies in emergency food boxes and insist that food bank clients leave tottering under absurd piles of sandwich rolls.  And, of course, we throw a lot away: the first instruction my supervisor gave me upon starting my new job was to discard every flour-based product along a 30-foot stretch of bread racks

Our surfeit of bread is not a distribution problem.  I am convinced that the hungry people of Flagstaff could not consume all the cupcakes that pass through our hands even if we could deliver them right to their doors.  We run out of fresh fruit and vegetables, milk, and meat, but never baked goods.  It’s a visceral reminder to those who think we can solve our food waste problem by donating to those in need that U.S. agriculture produces 3,500 kcal/day per person—way more than we, obesity notwithstanding, could ever eat.

On one level, I find this rampant wastage a little confusing.  As the boxes of muffins I threw out today proudly noted, most baked-goods are produced on-site, meaning there are no long supply-chains with attendant loss and spoilage.  And it’s not like the need for birthday cakes is wildly unpredictable or that people buy English muffins in wholly unpredictable spates.  You’d think that someone could figure out a bit more accurately how many pastries Safeway sells on a given day and, well, make approximately that many pastries.

Of course, there is a rationality behind the baked-good bounty, and that’s what makes it scary.  I remember reading in Jonathan Bloom’s American Wasteland that Au Bon Pain expects its stores to have $80 in inventory at the end of the day, to ensure that even a customer coming in two minutes before closing time is not confronted with empty shelves or forced to buy their second-choice flavor of bagel.  I’m sure the same is true system-wide: competition demands that stores offer an excessive range of choices (god forbid you cake have the wrong color frosting!).  The land and labor that go into producing food are so utterly trivial to stores’ balance sheets that they can compensate for the waste with the mark-up on the few cakes that get sold.

A modern-day Marie Antoinette might not be judged so harshly.  As far as I can tell from my vantage point at the food bank, the poor can have all the cake they want.

Career Changes?

“Well, do you at least know how to operate a pallet jack?”

I hesitate.  I have eight-and-one-third years of higher education under my belt.  I really should have a good answer to this question.  “I’m sure I’ll pick it up quickly”, I offer optimistically.

Last Tuesday was my first day at my new job—my first non-research-related job since I was the receptionist at a law office six years ago.  It’s been a tumultuous few weeks that have brought me to this point.  At the start of October, I was TAing an introductory sociology class, plugging away on a series of articles for publication, and preparing for my qualifying exams—and, I should add, unequivocally the most miserable I’ve ever been in my entire life.  So I decided to leave.  First I told people I was “dropping out”.  I’ve since graduated to “withdrawn” or, when I’m feeling particularly optimistic, “taking a sabbatical”.

The idea behind coming home was to give myself time to “get healthy”, but I quickly realized this was not an activity that could be blocked off on a day planner like “exercise” or “study”.  Casting about for meaningful things to do, I gravitated towards food, as I always have: with the freegans at Princeton, Food Justice at Oxford, and Food Not Bombs at Berkeley.  I filled out an online volunteer form for the Flagstaff Food Bank, noting with a bit of embarrassment, in response to a query about “available hours”, that I was free pretty much anytime.  Within 24 hours I got an enthusiastic call from a somewhat desperate volunteer coordinator and within 48 I was offered a part-time job.

Now I work in a warehouse.  I unload trucks coming in with donations, weigh pallets of surplus food, and assemble emergency food boxes.  Having spent the last six months gradually watching my capacity to do the things I enjoy and find meaning in wither away, there’s something rewarding and contemplative about spending four hours a day sorting out rotten mushrooms.  The cold of the refrigerator room gives me a much-needed jolt, and the Christian rock that blares over the loudspeaker provides me a strong incentive to get healthy and return to my old life.  And yes, I’ve learned how to operate a pallet jack—first a manual one and, today, a mighty and somewhat difficult to control electric one (with which I almost managed to precipitate my first workers’ comp claim).  Maybe forklifts are next.

That said, even in my current state, my goal is to progress as quickly as I can beyond moving around gaylords* of stale bread.  So when the Food Bank director announced on Friday that we would have a meeting about improving our operations, I was excited.  Perhaps I could put those years of higher education—which we discuss in the warehouse only in the context of making fun of my utter lack of practical knowledge—to some use!  I spent the weekend researching the academic literature on emergency food systems, and even dreamed up a small interview project to better understand the needs of our clientele.

On Monday, the time for the meeting came—and went.  I kept packing boxes and waiting for someone to come get me.  I finished my tasks for the day and wandered up to the front of the warehouse.  Not knowing the layout, I stumbled into a room where pretty much everyone else from the Food Bank was assembled.  “Can I help you?” my boss asked.  As it turns out, I wasn’t invited.

I’ve been having doubts for more than a year about academia.  I don’t know if those doubts have precipitated my depression or if depression has created the doubts; it doesn’t really matter, because it is increasingly hard for me to imagine myself “making it” as a professor.  But veering from that course, I’m quickly realizing, is not easy.  The internships and entry-level positions I’ve been looking at online are meant for people who are, well, younger.  And while I’ve gutted through the lowest eschelons of academia, I haven’t put in my time anywhere else.  So why would I get invited to a planning meeting, anyway: I’m just a guy who works in the warehouse.

* The name for large octagonal cardboard boxes.  You learn something new every day!

The Limits of Think.Eat.Save

There has been an extraordinary amount of media attention and policy action around food waste lately.  Major environmental groups like NRDC and totally not-at-all environmental groups like the Institution for Mechanical Engineering have released reports documenting how 30-50% of food is wasted in the US and abroad.  While reports from non-profits on some issue or another are nothing to get excited about, governments ranging from the City of Austin to the EU have introduced initiatives to curb food waste.  Most recently, the UN brought us “Think.Eat.Save.”

After years of listening freegans calling out from the wilderness of late-night dumpster dives, it’s great to hear that this is an issue that is getting some attention.  Industrial food production places huge strains on the environment, and wasted food means that much of that strain is wholly unnecessary.  To offer one of a barrage of possible statistics: 25% of freshwater and 4% of the oil used in the US goes to produce food that doesn’t actually get eaten.

As I see it, the only problem with preventing food waste is that it’s bad for the economy.

I’d love to have this picked apart, but it seems straightforward.  When Monsanto sells seeds to a farmer for a crop that will never be harvested, they make money.  So, too, does the farmer who sells produce that a processing plant will reject because it doesn’t meet their (absurd) aesthetic standards.  And it’s good news for the distributor when retailers are forced to buy in bulk – despite an inability to sell the entire product – to get lower prices.  Those grocery stores’ balance sheets, too, look better when they sell food in packages so large that no one could eat it all (cilantro, anyone?).  The consumer pays for all this waste in the end through higher prices—purchasing the commodities they use as well as the commodities destroyed along the way.

The U.S. agricultural system produces upwards of 3,700 calories per person, per day.  Our efforts to achieve Type-3 diabetes notwithstanding (cf. Steven Colbert), we aren’t going to eat all those calories.  There isn’t a lot to do with that excess.  You could dump it on developing countries (bad), or you could turn it into bio-fuels (also bad).  Barring that, it will go to waste—somewhere—irrespective of individual good intentions.  And all that production, the money that changed hands, the goods that got sold and then got discarded—they will count in GDP figures all the same.  “The economy”, that abstract idol to which we sacrifice much-needed social programs, the well-being of workers, and the future habitability of our planet, likes waste.

Yes, there are some individual strategies we can take to reduce food waste, and they may make the economy more efficient and more sustainable.  The campaigns against food waste are, in my eyes, positive – and unequivocally so.  But if we really care about food waste, we need to start to talk about reducing production.  And when you propose reducing the size of a sector worth $1.8 trillion and employing 1/6th of the US population, you’re starting to question  the imperative of unlimited growth and expansion, and asserting that there is perhaps something more important than “the economy”.  Once you’re there, you’re taking—as one of my favorite friends from freegan.info put it—“a long, hard look at capitalism” itself.

Maybe the UN secretly wants us to have that conversation.  I hope so.

Still Eating Quinoa

I’ve been meaning to return to blogging for a while—in fact, since I made it a New Year’s Resolution and, immediately thereafter, abandoned it as quickly as a new exercise regime.

Leave it to a not-at-all veiled attack on veganism to bring me back.  Periodically, friends forward me links obliquely encouraging me to reconsider my veganism.  First, it was the idiotic vegan parents who deprived their kid of breast-milk (“You wouldn’t make your kids be vegan…would you?”).  Then it was soy plantations causing deforestation in the Amazon.  Now it’s Bolivians going hungry, supposedly, because demand for quinoa from Western vegans has made the grain prohibitively expensive for them.

Just so we’re clear: the quinoa article is a complete farce.  Vegans are less than one percent of the U.S. population, so it’s not clear why “vegans”, as opposed to “people who eat quinoa”, are singled out.  The article’s follow-up claim that vegans should also feel bad about eating soy – because it “drives environmental destruction” in the Amazon – is actually so off-base that The Guardian added a footnote pointing out that 97% of soy imports go to animal feed.  Presumably, some of that soy goes to feed the cows that the author smugly concludes we can eat with a clear conscience.

This editorial wouldn’t even be worth talking about if it didn’t make a logical mistake that vegans, fair-trade enthusiasts, and farmers-market junkies do as well.  It’s the notion that our individual consumer choices actually cause and, in turn, can solve social problems.  The implicit narrative of the article—that I should feel bad for eating quinoa—assumes that there is some invisible hand that snatches the grain from someone else and gives it to me.

Take this to its logical conclusion, and apply it to a food that isn’t associated with a tiny, much-maligned dietary minority.  From 2005-2008, prices for wheat spiked 80%.  The absolute number of hungry people worldwide increased for the first time in decades.  So should we blame people who continued to eat bread during the crisis for the fact that others starved?  We could, but to do so would be naïve to the political and economic realities of our food system.  The food price spikes of 2008 happened because Goldman Sachs and other investment banks figured out they could make money by betting on grain futures, essentially cornering grain for which they had no real need.  Wheat prices went up in 2008 even though wheat farmers posted record harvests, making a mockery of your introduction to microeconomics textbook.

I’m not writing this as a defense of veganism.  If anything, the article reminds us that finding just commodities in an unjust system is impossible.  So long as 30-50% of food production winds up in the dumpster, you can be confident that your decision to abstain from quinoa / meat / gluten / whatever means that more of said commodity winds up in the trash – not that less is produced.  It’s also, then, a reminder that our “food politics” should involve more than just buying one thing over another.   In the meantime, berating for people for doing their best in a fucked-up situation simply offers comfort to those who would rather do nothing.

Blood on All Hands

Q: How do I know Yasuní National Park is the most biodiverse place in the planet?
A: Because on Saturday mornings, that diversity is on sale in Pompeya.

I´m not quite sure what I was expecting to discover this Saturday, but I certainly didn´t plan on finding anything as disturbing as I did.  One of my interviewees told me that if I really wanted to know what was happening in Yasuní, I needed to go to the market town of Pompeya, just early enough to catch the first boats coming in from the Rio Napo.  I asked around and found a few biologists who travel there every weekend, and at 5:00 a.m., off I went.

The route itself was an interesting one.  In 2005, petroleum companies built the Ecuadorian equivalent of a superhighway straight into the heart of Yasuní National Park.  We had to show our papers to use it: access is 100% controlled by the private companies, and the rumor is that even park guards need to ask permission in advance.  As part of their strategy for winning over the local population, the companies also provide subsidized transportation to surrounding indigenous communities. 

The result is that, for the first time in their history, the Huaorani are able to take their traditional subsistence hunting and commercialize it, with disastrous results.  The “market” is an informal affair; there are no stalls or tiendas, just a handful of trucks waiting around for boats to come in.  At around 7:00 a.m., the hunters start to arrive.  Occassionally they bring the entire animal, hooves jutting out of blood-drenched burlap bags or a tail hanging limply from plastic wrap.  Other times, it´s just a leg or a torso.  The Huaorani look out of place: uncomfortable wearing clothes, much less haggling over prices.  It´s clear they don´t know how to play the game; one woman selling an armadillo asks for $50 – an absurdly high price – and then gets 50 cents – a complete rip off.   It doesn´t seem like a huge quantity of meat – I see probably 20 to 30 animals change hands – but the biologists assure me that, thanks to overexploitation, there are now entire tracts of the park without picari or guanta.

There is, of course, a certain amount of guilt I feel as a Westerner watching this unfold.  The entire market is propelled by idiot tourists who want to eat “jungle meat.”  Even as a vegetarian, though, I don´t feel much better: you, me, and everyone we know are implicated in the whole affair to, insofar as we live off of petroleum.  It´s oil that destroyed these peoples´ traditional livelihood, oil that drove them to put their forest on the auction block, oil that introduced them to new “needs” and “necessities” that makes money an unavoidable part of their lives.

For all this blame that falls on Western shoulders, though, it´s hard for me not to get mad at the hunters themselves.  I suppose there´s nothing particularly cruel about hunting a tapir using a spear or a blowgun, as hard as it is for me to stomach.  The live animals, though, are another matter.  When I saw the first bag twitching, my heart sank: the market is not just a place for the trafficking of meat, but also for live animals, to be pets or zoological spectacles or, occassionally, to be slaughtered later.  The animals don´t understand what´s going on, but you can see it in their eyes – from monkeys to tortoises – that they know that this is not where they belong.

And to what end, all of this?  The real driving impetus behind all of this comes not in bloody burlap bags, but in twelve packs.  The money paid out for the meet stays in indigenous hands for only a few minutes, before it is turned over to beer wholesalers.  Beer is being moved in unfathomable quantities: every boat coming in from downriver unloads crates and crates of empty bottles, and leaves with them filled.  We estimate that 12,000 bottles are purchased in one morning – that´s $12,000, every week, for communities without schools, without health centers, without jobs.

Don´t get me wrong: I support the right of poor people to drink beer, and feel like I have no right to frown on people engaging in activities of which I myself partake just because they were born poorer than I.  But the whole situation was so massively fucked up that I can´t even figure out who it is, exactly, that I want to be mad at, who I want to throttle.  The saddest for me was a Huaorani boy with a baby Armadillo.  He and his friends clearly delighted in tormenting it, whipping it around by the tail, stomping on it, throwing it against the wall.  Eventually the parents walk over, but not to interrupt – just to join in. 

I am reminded that people who are recipients of a lifelong ass-kicking rarely respond by turning against their oppressors.  We hope that the downtrodden will band together and fight against the neoliberals, against the petroleros, against the central government.  But they don´t.  Instead, they look for someone or something weaker to kick.  After a while, the Armadillo stops struggling.  It gives up, resigned to whatever it has coming.  What can you do, after all, in the face of wanton and uninvited cruelty?  I think both of us are wondering the same thing.

Africa Beards, Expat Guilt, and Mac’n’Cheese

Last summer, it was a beard.  This summer, it’s Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.

Almost exactly one year ago, I arrived in Uganda, expecting to see some elephants, learn a bit of Luganda, raft down the Nile, and maybe, in between visits to national parks, do a bit of economic research on agricultural cooperatives.  It didn’t quite work out as expected.  I spent the next seven weeks working eighteen hours seven days a week, all the while battling against the implausibility of our research design, the madness of my coworkers, and all manner of comical medical problems.  I left fifteen pounds lighter, even counting the quite hideous beard I had managed to grow.

Mock me.

There were a handful of reasons why I went razor-free for the summer.  For one, the truly hideous fuzz was a source of humor for me and my fellow RAs even in the darkest of times.  The guest house where I stayed had neither hot water nor a mirror, so looking sharp seemed like an overly daunting challenge (Never mind that my Ugandan co-workers were inevitably dressed to the nines and squeaky-clean every day).  More than anything, though, growing a beard was a bit symbolic of the mentality I took with me to Africa.  It’s a mindset of relaxed personal standards that I think many Westerners carry, packed in alongside their guidebooks and bug repellant, when the travel to the developing world.  The third world is, we tell ourselves, a bit freer and a tad less disciplined—which is part of our justification for making drunken asses of ourselves in Cancun or visiting hookers in Bangkok.

This summer, though, there will be no prolonged facial-hair-growth.  I have interviews with government ministers and NGO presidents, and as a result, I’m taking a page out of my Ugandan friends’ grooming book.  In fact, I think I’ve worn a button up shirt for more consecutive days then any time previously in my life, an experience I’m—rather surprisingly—enjoying.  Who could have possibly guessed that not looking like hell would provide a jolt of confidence?

Instead, my weakening of personal standards has come in a different form, which is, I am afraid to say, a bit direr: for the past two weeks, I have been a lacto-ovo-vegetarian.  I decided I would be loosening up my usual veganism before I even arrived, having been warned by nearly everyone I talked to that survival as a vegetarian in Ecuador was going to be hard enough, without added restrictions.  I suppose there’s an element of truth to their cautioning: I’ve already received several lectures from my host mother about how I’m going to become feeble and fragile if I don’t start eating meat, and most waiters just seem puzzled when I ask if there’s a vegetarian dish.  Still, though, I’m surviving, and, for the most part, content with the moral compromise I have made in the name of minimizing my already nearly unmanageable stress levels.

This weekend, though, I think I took “compromise”to a new level.  I needed change for a $20 bill, a massively large denomination that is almost impossible to break in Ecuador.* Feeling the need to compensate the local corner store for cleaning out all of their small bills, I bought a seriously overpriced box of authentic, fantastically overprocessed Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.  Consuming an entire family sized box in one sitting—replete with a cup of milk and a few ounces of butter—was, I think, a culmination of the animal-product binge I’ve been on since I got here.  If I’m breaking the rules a bit, I suppose, I might as well break them a lot: hence, an endless stream of pizza, cake, cookies, omelettes, and yogurt.

I’ve written before about how being vegan anchors my sense that, yes, I am in fact a moral being, and yes, I do occasionally live those morals.  Here, though, I’ve been thinking more about how my decision to go from vegan to vegetarian appears to other people.  I’ve explained to a handful of Ecuadorians that “Yes, I’m usually vegan—but while I’m here, I’m just vegetarian.” From the relativist perspective of anthropology, temporarily suspending my veganism is a Good Thing, because it indicates that I am not trying to impose my Western idiosyncracies on a foreign culture.  It strikes me as a bit awkward, though, because here I am, offering that same expat mentality: “Hi, I have morals in my country, but they don’t really apply when I’m here.”  It is, in a sense, no less diresprespectful than growing a really, really ugly beard.

In the name of my own sanity, I think I’m going to postpone my return to level-seven veganism until I get back to a country where tofu is a household word.  In the meantime, though, I’m trying to sort out the right way to live in a foreign country—to balance the openness of anthropology with my own ethical beliefs, and to find an equilibrium between high standards and the fact that I am, sort of, on vacation.

* Remember how one time the U.S. Government released a bunch of Sacagawea dollar coins… and then they were never seen again?  That’s because they’re all in Ecuador.