This blog post is a little lengthy. I wanted to share something that I submitted to the TAUG Journal at UC Berkeley, a publication of Christian thought. Unfortunately, it didn’t make the cut, but I thought it was still worth sharing.
Food and faith are two crucial areas of my life, and this essay is a comprehensive overview on food waste through the lens of Christianity.
If you have five minutes to spare and are curious as to why or how there is food waste issue, I encourage you to give it a good read.
To Clean Up:
Whether it is through the exchange of words from generations of tongues before, or from the ink that clings to the grooves of paper, the use of recipes contribute to the survival of the human race. Recipes provide instructions refined by past wisdom so that our final result today overcomes centuries of human trial and error. The concept of a recipe goes beyond adding a half cup of sugar into a bowl of folded egg whites –no rather these food manuals taught our predecessors how to plant, harvest, clean, prepare, and preserve good and viable energy for the human body.
One thing is almost always absent however, in these recipes. In addition to the sections underlined “Ingredients” or “Preheat,” it is rare for a “Cleanup” section to follow. Chances are, the “cleanup” procedure we typically adhere to consist of throwing away leftover food scraps into the garbage can. If we look at the food system at large, we can see a similar pattern. The United Nations Environment Programme concludes, “30 to 40 percent of the food supply is wasted” from the supplier to consumer level, “equaling [to] more than 20 pounds of food per person per month.” Wastefulness is a characteristic trait of our food system today, evident through the prodigal expenditure of natural resources and wrongful appropriations of money.
How we created Enough Food to Waste
To fully understand the concept of food waste and why it should even be worth investigating, we need to understand the historical basis of the Green Revolution. Norman Borlaug, father of the movement, was asked to advise India’s Department of Agriculture in 1961, when the nation was at risk of a mass famine. As notable food activist Raj Patel puts it, “The Green Revolution involved fertilizer, irrigation, land sales, consolidation, birth control and government subsidies and supports” to combat hunger amidst an exponentially growing population in India. The rice and wheat farmers with the help of Borlaug shifted the focus of farming from variety to productivity using new agricultural technology, with little thought given to the environmental consequences. Development of pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) saved the one third of crops that would have been thrown away due to pest damage. These practices have been carried on in countries beyond India and have helped to stabilize the world supply of food. The Green Revolution essentially created enough food for the world so that food waste was not considered an urgent matter. So yes, the Green Revolution was deemed successful in feeding the urban population, but not without its lot of consequences. With more food available to feed, there is also more food available to waste.
Energy: From Sun to Oil to Gas
Historically before World War II, farming was dependent on solar energy. Post World War II, the demand for food skyrocketed and in addition to the pesticides, GMOs, subsidies, and population control mentioned previously as solutions, farmers turned to oil as a cheaper and more time-efficient source of energy. Oil powers farm machinery such as tractors and harvesters, saving farmers from back breaking hours of labor and allowing for a greater quantity of crop yield within a smaller time frame. Unfortunately, with the switch to an oil dependent food chain, it now takes ten calories of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of food. With the use of oil, there is a greater net waste of energy if food is thrown away. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, “one in four calories intended for consumption is never actually eaten.” And for every one calorie not eaten, ten calories of fossil fuel have burned in vain.
The misuse of energy also intersects greatly with global warming. Food waste is currently the third largest contributor of greenhouse gases. Not only does food waste invalidate the energy of oil burned to make the food, the United Nations Environment Programme finds that food “is the second greatest component” that lies idly in landfills, “which are the largest source of methane emissions.” Growing food is clearly a costly operation both in money and natural resources, thus any sort of squandering is detrimental.
Land: “This Land was made for you and me”
More than thirty-eight percent of global land is devoted to agriculture (Goklany, 2001). It is important to note that this significant proportion of farm and rangeland was not created due to natural causes. Rather, biomes were destroyed, forests were burned, and the land was worked so that crops had access to soil, but with this destruction of natural habitats comes a global loss of biodiversity. Seen in these terms, the conversion to agricultural land is neither harmless nor efficient. Should the land be unproductive in the process of producing food, the damage to ecological systems is something one cannot reverse.
Water: The Thirst is Real
A waste of food also equivocates to a waste of water, another important resource in agriculture. In fact, a cow can drink up to twenty-three gallons of water a day, and if twenty-three gallons is the quota of only one day in a cow’s eighteen year lifespan, throwing a piece of steak away is like pouring 151,110 gallons of water down the drain (Bohanec, 2014). Fertilizer, another key resource used in growing crops, is also heavily used, to the point where it is wasteful. Frankly, the amount of fertilizer applied to the average crop in the United States is sixty percent more than what the plant needs to grow (Goklany, 2001). The extra fertilizer accumulates in the irrigation runoff and ends up in streams. The nitrogenous stream water fertilizes the algae, growing it at an incredibly fast rate. And when the algae in the streams eventually die, the bacterium that decomposes the algae will take up more oxygen than it would normally use due to the greater amounts of algae that now habituate the stream. The loss of oxygen is so significant that life can no longer be sustained in the surrounding area. More than four hundred of these “dead zones” exist in the United States and provides yet another reason for the declining biodiversity. Clearly, growing food requires a great deal of natural resources, energy, and climate reshaping. The extraneous misusing of such precious capital underscores that food waste must be addressed in order to fix the food system.
People: A Paradox of Hunger and Obesity
Healthcare, another relevant topic especially in light of Obamacare, is also directly affected by wastefulness. As previously discussed, food has without a doubt become more available, but why is it that fourteen percent of Americans are food insecure and hungry (Feeding America 2014)? Or why is it that with such a “well-fed” country, one third of premature deaths in the U.S. are attributable to poor nutrition (Kyle 2010, 157-172)?
Food insecurity is defined as the limited or uncertain ability to acquire or consume an adequate quality of food in socially acceptable ways. It leads to a lack of essential nutrients, which can lead to chronic illness. And even with low-income food assistance programs, healthy foods are priced higher than junk foods, limiting a food insecure individual’s prospect to live a healthy life. Misspending in the form of overfunding unhealthy foods in the food system inadvertently nurtures chronic diet-related diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. This explains why more than seventy-five percent of the nation’s two trillion medical-care costs are a result of chronic disease (Kyle 2010, 157-172). The question of whether or not the United States government should provide healthcare insurance in 2010 stems from the fact that more people have medical expenses from diseases that could have been preventable given proper nutrition. When food is wasted, it also encourages a greater inequitable distribution of food, and thus food insecurity. Without access to reasonably priced fruits and vegetables, individuals who are hungry are at a higher risk of obesity –quite a paradox.
Government: Food Politics
To explain why a carrot costs more than a bag of potato chips, we need to understand the political circumstances of the food system: the Farm Bill. Farmers were incentivized in the Green Revolution to focus on the quantity of food grown because the government of India paid farmers a return share for every bushel or pound of wheat and rice they grew. For the sake of their farm’s survival, farmers will follow where the money is. So consequently, many farmers abandoned growing specialty crops, such as fruits and vegetables. This method is also present in the United States Farm Bill today, where “commodity crops grown for animal feed” are subsidized, while “specialty crops deserve only token support” (Nestle 2015). The Farm Bill is a three hundred and fifty-seven page piece of legislature that requires one hundred billion dollars a year in taxes to fund and houses twelve sections, three of which actually apply to farms. By initially subsidizing cotton, soy, corn, rice, and wheat, the Farm Bill encouraged economic recovery in American farms. But because these crops were prioritized from the government, these commodities eventually became entitlements (Nestle 2015). Farms that grew these commodity crops grew fairly large and are now considered agribusinesses. And because these agribusinesses have huge spheres of influence, members of congress will not dare take away their funding.
Surprisingly, only a small portion of the subsidized commodity items will eventually end up in the supermarket. In addition to federally funded junk food, biofuels and animal feed are also subsidized. In fact, animal feed and ethanol from corn –which are contrary to what a “commodity” is even defined as– receive more monetary reimbursement than corn for food. This once again reflects the wasteful nature of the food system. The distribution of federal funding in the Farm Bill can be redirected in such a way that an excess of money is not spent on just a handful of agribusinesses, while leaving other federally funded programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) with debilitating budget cuts.
So What Can We Do?
In light of all this evidence, it may seem as though one of the solutions we have left is to stuff our faces –to make sure every crumb is eaten so that no resources will have gone to waste– or even to eat less meat. These are good ideas, however we must remember that the food system is a relationship between the consumer and the producer. What the agribusiness wastes is just as important as what the grocery shopper wastes. Participants of the food system, which is everyone that depends on food for survival, should make informative decisions. It should be done so in a way that does not expend food –the natural resources, labor, funding, time, and the humanity associated with it– carelessly, extravagantly, or to no purpose. To clean up: waste less.
But what if We Followed Recipes that were Perfect to Begin with?
From a Christian perspective, the ultimate guidebook in life is the Bible. Unlike recipes, this manual is not built on the foundation of human trial and error. The Bible is God-breathed and embodies the nature of God –holy, pure, and perfect. It provides instructions on how to honor God and live life according to His perfect plan. In terms of food, the Bible includes guidance on how to harvest mercifully, be charitable to the hungry, and even how to prepare foods for celebration. Food is one of the basic sources of sustenance for life and God heavily addresses this subject throughout the Bible.
Even in the very beginning, the Bible writes in Genesis 2:15 (KJV) that “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to dress it and keep it.” The Garden of Eden was a place of sanctity for God and man, where God grew “every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food” (Genesis 2:9 KJV). Clearly, God did not command Adam to destroy or exploit the land, but rather to protect and treasure God’s creation. The Hebrew word for “keep” is “shamar,” and it goes beyond our understanding of managing something to the point of tidiness. “Shamar” means “to guard” or to “watch and protect” –and it is here in God’s instruction that urges us to be good stewards of the Earth and land that is provided to us for food (Ritenbaugh, 1999).
In Leviticus 23:22 (ESV), God instructs His people during the Feast of Harvest: “when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and the sojourner.” Contrary to our modern approach of overworking the land for profit and then throwing away the food that does not lead to profit, God instead calls His people to leave the corners of the cropland untouched, so that the poor may collect the gleanings after the day of work is over.
In regards to the hungry, we can also find God’s word addressing this. There are many instances in the Bible where we can find God prompting His people to feed the hungry as an act of sacrificial love, a prominent characteristic of God. One of these verses is Luke 3:11 (NIV): “whoever has two shirts should share with the person who doesn’t have any. Whoever has food should share it too.” This verse directly addresses the heart and tangible actions that mankind can demonstrate in response to the inequitable distribution of food.
These instructions on how to approach food systems, even down to the “cleanup” steps on what to do with the harvested food, give a glimpse at God’s love for his creation –both for the Earth and human beings. In this life manual, God’s wisdom protects us from the man-made disasters that stem from the food wastefulness we see today. To clean up: seek God.
Bohanec, Hope. 2014. “California’s Drought — Who’s Really Using All the Water?” One Green Planet, January 24. http://www.onegreenplanet.org/news/californias-drought-whos-really-using-all-the-water/
Feeding America. N.d. “Poverty Statistics & Food Insecurity Fact Sheet.” Feeding America, N.d. http://www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/impact-of-hunger/hunger-and-poverty/hunger-and-poverty-fact-sheet.html
Goklany, Indur. 2001. “Modern Agriculture: The Pros and Cons of Modern Farming.” Property and Environment Research Center, Spring. http://www.perc.org/articles/modern-agriculture
Kyle, Margaret K. 2010. “National Health Priorities.” The Review of Economics and Statistics, 94 (4): 157-172. http://cspinet.org/new/pdf/cdc_briefing_book_fy10.pdf
Nestle, Marion. 2015 “Utopian Dream: A New Farm Bill.” Dissent Magazine, Winter. http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/utopian-dream-a-new-farm-bill
Patel, Raj. 2014. “How to Be Curious About the Green Revolution.” Raj Patel, August 29. http://rajpatel.org/2014/08/29/every-factoid-is-a-mystery-how-to-think-more-clearly-about-the-green-revolution-and-other-agricultural-claims/
Ritenbaugh, Richard T. 1999. “The Bible and the Environment.” Bible Tools, February. http://www.bibletools.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/Library.sr/CT/PW/k/191/The-Bible-and-Environment.htm
United Nations Environment Programme. 2014.”Food Waste: The Facts.” United Nations, N.d. http://www.worldfooddayusa.org/food_waste_the_facts