Get real and watch economics in action

12/28/2012 09:52:00 AM
Greg Johnson

I keep coming back to a phrase I first studied in 100-level college psychology: cognitive dissonance.

It’s defined roughly as the anxiety that comes from holding contradictory beliefs or thoughts at the same time.

For instance, how can we have a hunger problem in the U.S. while at the same time be battling unprecedented obesity? How does food waste factor in this?

It’s true that food stamp enrollment has never been higher, while obesity rates continue to climb, and as modern agriculture makes food more accessible and less expensive, the hottest trends are toward costlier, less efficient growing methods, like local and organic and grass fed.

Food shouldn’t be so political, but it is.

I think one of the biggest problems the U.S. has when it comes to the politics of food is that so many first-class minds are too removed from actual food production and sales.

 

Media ignorance

Fresh produce growers constantly deal with hedging crop sizes, dealing with weather complications and the supply-and-demand forces.

It’s second nature, and when U.S. citizens were more involved in food production, these market forces wouldn’t need to be explained.

It seems like food ignorance is getting better as consumers pay more attention to what they eat.

I remember in the spring of 2010, how absurd it was that the Florida strawberry industry had to fight a public relations battle after winter freezes.

In January that year, low temperatures set the stage for a market glut two months later, when tons of berries ripened at the same time. Prices fell well below the cost of production as Florida growers came to market at the same time as California was getting started.

Growers were forced to leave berries in the field. They don’t want to be in this position.

But then came the ignorant mainstream media, as a late March program on ABC News attacked Florida growers for destroying their fields instead of donating the berries to the hungry.

Do-gooder consumers wrote nasty e-mails to the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, after which executive director Ted Campbell had to explain how markets work, not to mention that hunger fighting groups did organize some gleanings to help feed the hungry.

Thankfully, we see much less of this now.

 

Misunderstanding food waste

Sometimes, the misunderstanding of the market system is confusing.

Take blogger Dana Gunders, who is listed as a scientist of food and agriculture for the environmental group the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Her biggest concern is food waste, judging by her blog topics. In her Dec. 13 post, she lays out how dire a situation U.S. consumers find themselves in.

“At a time when over 50 million people are food insecure and we face an obesity crisis, it’s a shame that 40% of food is never eaten. A closer look shows us that Americans are tossing 52% of the nation’s nutritious fruits and vegetables — wasting produce, more than any other type of food product, including seafood, meat, grains and dairy, at nearly every level across the supply chain.”

Later in her post, she acknowledges that farming is risky because of weather changes, which is a normal part of business.

She says growers are mostly not to blame for this waste — consumers are.

“Our finicky preference for perfect-looking produce not only forces some fruit and vegetables to be voted off the marketplace, it drives down the price of even slightly misshapen, smaller, or scarred fruit.”

The solution she says is complicated, but several different things can help.

  • First, consumers should buy imperfect produce
  • Second, businesses (presumably retailers) should offer consumers less-than-high quality product;
  • Third, policymakers should fund more studies into the problem and give tax credits for donations; and
  • Fourth, gleaners and food rescue operations should keep up the good work.

Where do I begin with these “solutions”? First, consumers have the freedom to buy lots of different kinds of produce, and retailers do offer levels of product, but they won’t sell product that could sicken people, and consumers throw away food that passes its expiration date.

This is a good thing.

More studies would be great if you worked for someplace like the NRDC, huh?

And gleaners and food rescue operations do an excellent job, as do the companies who already get tax deductions for donations.

Of course more charity is a good thing. Do we need a study for this?

The Wall Street Journal also ran a Dec. 26 column called “Hungering for a Solution to Food Losses,” written by Anna Lappé, the author of “Diet for a Hot Planet” and founder of the Real Food Media Project, and Danielle Nierenberg, co-president of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank.

It essentially urged more innovation in Third World countries and more mindfulness in advanced countries of environmental and food security problems from food waste.

Might I suggest a novel thought to these smart people with apparently too much time on their hands?

Let the free market work, and even invest your own time and effort into it.

Those in the produce industry know that supply and demand tend to even out pretty quickly. And there’s nothing wrong with throwing out bad food. We’ll make more.

gjohnson@thepacker.com

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Denise Donohue    
January, 08, 2013 at 03:59 PM

Greg - Thought you so nailed it on this one! Great column. I don't think that strawberry thing is so long ago (2010) that it wouldn't happen again.

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