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The Almost Virtuous Foodways Cycle

The Almost Virtuous Foodways Cycle

I wrote this artcile across my professional social media because I think food waste is one of the most significant issues we face as a society. It’s one of those problems that if you fix it you see a disproportionate impact on the rest of a system. Love to know what you think!

A system cycle (or circle) describes an interrelated, complex chain of events that reinforce through a feedback loop. A virtuous system cycle tends to have mostly favorable occurrences across the different stages; a vicious system cycle has primarily detrimental ones.

One can easily fall into the trap of thinking of our current foodways system is in the vicious category, given the recent impact of COVID-19. But if you step back and take a more expansive view, the transformation of our foodways systems over the several decades is nothing short of remarkable. The response to COVID-19, while bumpy and uncomfortable in some areas, reinforced the adaptability of the system. Frankly, the foodways system is probably closer to the economic theory of a "perfect market" than just about any industry with which I've associated.

One particular element of the system that the current environment has shown a harsh, unforgiving light on is food waste. Historical estimates are that we waste 40%-50% of the food produced in this country (it will be interesting to see that percent for 2020). It spans from food rotting in a field due to no profit from selling it to food thrown away due to aesthetic "defects" to excessive portions thrown away after a meal is complete. The fundamental problem under it all is that excess food has no way to be efficiently transported to those who need it.

If we allow financial profit to be the arbiter of where food ultimately goes, we will find it challenging to address this problem. But if we start to consider optimizing the return across additional forms of capital, such as natural, material, human, or cultural, to name a few, then suddenly the foodways system becomes genuinely virtuous. Getting food to those who need it ultimately has a positive, dramatic influence at the early stages of food production.

When less food is wasted, the resources used to grow the food, including more than one trillion gallons of water, are not wasted. It also has the potential to cut greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 18 million tons (CO2MTE). And it has economic benefits, as currently, the country spends $218B a year growing, processing, transporting, and disposing of food that goes to waste. - World Wildlife Fund

If we thought the system was efficient before, imagine how much more it would be with knowledge of consumption and waste throughout the entire process.

We must meet two criteria for a reduction in food waste:

  1. Business entities must redefine how they calculate returns, shifting from a singular focus on economic capital to optimization across nine capital forms. A great example of this is this investment firm's requirements of the companies it invests in http://ow.ly/N3MW50BmiMF.

  2. The public and private sectors must collaborate because neither can accomplish this on their own. The Pacific Coast Collaborative is leading one of the most extensive public-private collaborations to reduce food waste. http://ow.ly/Pp2c50BmiXB.

Just imagine the unfathomable impact on all aspects of our society by getting wasted food to those who need it, for whatever reason. Resources to grow food will be better allocated, accompanied by a reduction in agriculture's environmental impact. The money spent growing, processing, transporting, and disposing of food that goes to waste can be targeted toward other challenges. Overall, our society gets better, as a healthy, better-fed society is more productive and happier. That is something I think we would all agree is a laudable goal.

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