What Percentage of Food Produced in the United States Never Gets Eaten?

It feels rather strange to be writing about the topic of wasted food once again in such short order, especially since my attention span is short and usually tends to wander from random topic to topic.  But it turns out that events are happening in this domain that seem to line up with my attention being drawn to the subject.

A few weeks ago, after a lot of thought, I wrote a piece about the wastage of food, specifically bread, that I see at the food bank I volunteer at.  I called the piece The Economics of Wasted Bread.  Having not followed the subject too closely in the past, I felt that I might be a lonely voice in the wilderness speaking on the topic of food waste.  It turns out that I was wrong.

More recently I posted a blog where I provided a link to an article addressing food wastage. I had found the link in an e-mail from an organization dealing with social issues.  It turns out that there are other more capable people thinking about this subject.  If you track down the links in the article I pointed to, you will see that some of the numbers quoted in there come from a report by an organization called the NRDC. If you really want to dive into the weeds on this topic, you can read their complete report here.  The folks at NRDC tackle a variety of subjects of the “tree-hugging” variety, and having encountered them in a different life, I can say that the report ought to be taken with a grain of salt.  But  having said that, and also based on my own experiences, I have little doubt that the general tone of the report is correct and appropriate.

Whether you believe the numbers or not, the topic is in itself noteworthy, and the best person to present this topic in an entertaining manner is John Oliver.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8xwLWb0lLY

If John Oliver is right, the concept I had of the “Expiry date” of products from the legal perspective was incorrect.  But I think some my thoughts on the subject were on the right track.

So, at the end of this blog, you should know NRDC’s answer to the question as to what percentage of food produced in the United States never gets eaten.  I find the numbers shocking.

PS.  A thank you to my daughter for providing the link to the video.

Digital in an Analog World (March 21st, 2014)

The digital paradigm is a key element of the technology and general thinking that drives our civilization today.  Information sharing in the electronic domain is for the most part achieved by breaking the information down into discrete, i.e, digital, levels for transmission and processing (except for a few remaining exceptions).  What we may not realize is that we also tend to use the digital paradigm almost everywhere else in our lives, outside of the technology domain, and this often times is the trigger to many of the issues we have in the world.  We tend to make absolute determinations about situations when in fact there are” levels” or grades of explanations and understandings about the realities, and a resulting ambiguity with a lot of what happens in the world.  By using the term “levels” I have already assumed a digital mode of thought, by postulating that there are some thresholds involved in the thinking process, when in fact the range of ideas and opinions that are available is a continuously variable analog process.

There are examples everywhere.  Consider definitions  used in the political world. We tend to use categorizations such as democratic, dictatorship, capitalist, socialist, etc.,  when in fact there is almost always more variation and ambiguity in the definition of political systems of particular countries being talked about, and mixed approaches to governing and addressing national issues.  But given a choice, the world will tend to categorize and compartmentalize.  When you do not want to think, names can be substituted and can perhaps be used as a basis for conflict.  When you think about it, having nations with boundaries is a completely artificial digital concept in itself.

Social arguments also tend to follow the digital paradigm.  In many cases is no compromise on topics ranging from religion to human rights (including women’s rights).  We are the owners of the one truth, we set our thresholds at one extreme, we cannot (or we refuse to) empathize with the other side, we want to set the rules, there is no room for compromise, and we are divided because of this.  It could be argued that some categorization is needed to provide a structure in society, without which there would be chaos. The challenge is to do this in a way that works fairly for everybody involved so that consideration of variety, compromise, and ambiguity are part of the process.  Why is it that the only outcomes of a court of law are that of guilty and not guilty.  Surely there are situations which are not that clear cut.  But we hate ambiguity.

Take an practical example from everyday city life.  We have traffic lights that almost eliminate the need for drivers of automobiles to think when arriving at a traffic intersection. Then we have speed limits (and other rules of the road) that are meant for safety (as if you are completely safe below a particular speed, and completely unsafe above it).  Perhaps we need some of these absolute rules because we cannot be trusted to deal properly with situations that are ambiguous, where we need to make judgment calls.  But rules still do not eliminate danger.  We are still capable of killing ourselves and others on the road.  And rules can also applied in a manner that leads to inefficiencies, such as the need to sit at traffic intersections waiting for the light to change for long periods of time when there is no cross traffic at all. Do we set more levels and boundary conditions and rules for decision making, or should we be smarter about our interactions at a traffic intersection?  Or perhaps we create autonomous vehicles and try to program the vehicles to respond to any possible scenario that can be thought of.  Is this even possible?

Categorization does also provide us with a tool that can be used to simplify the teaching process.  For example, look up information about the height of the atmosphere.  You will find that it is defined as being layered, with names for the different layers. In fact the nature of the atmosphere continuously changes with height and there are no clear layers, nor is there a clear boundary between the atmosphere and outer space.  Creating layers makes it simpler to be organized and to talk a common language to get an idea across, but it is essentially a concept in our minds.  To truly understand something, perhaps you have to embrace  ambiguity.  Consider the geographical construct of a shoreline.  Assumptions are made about clear lines delineating the land from the water so that we can try to make measurements, when in fact the delineation could be extremely complex and could be described beautifully using the concept of fractals  Here are some great examples (including that of the shoreline). (I actually think that the concept of fractals is something that is intuitive and can be taught to kids.)

When the digital mode of thinking it taken to its extreme, any form of dissent, disagreement, and attempts to argue with the rules, is not allowed.   (You will also be failed in your exams. 🙂 ) Are there folks who will argue that it is a good thing?

Things can be ambiguous in physics.  The uncertainty principle asserts that one cannot accurately know the location and momentum of a particle at the same time.  We also learn in physics that light has properties of both particles and waveforms, and there are experiments to illustrate both behaviors.   But we most probably started out learning only one of the behaviors in a school environment because it was probably more intuitive and easy to explain that behavior.  It is more difficult to comprehend things when you start talking about the subtleties.

In the world of digital communications, we find that communications becomes more efficient if are able to define more levels (of modulation), but we also learn that creating these additional levels creates more uncertainty and requires much more powerful processing (error correction) to resolve the uncertainty, until at some point we can approach Shannons capacity limit for the maximum possible information transmission rate in a noisy channel.  Perhaps, there is a similar dynamic in play in our minds on other matters, where creating more levels of consideration may be considered equivalent to embracing more uncertainty, but the ability to deal with this uncertainty requires more powerful processing in our heads. Dealing with ambiguity can lead to better solutions but it is harder to do.

You might say that there are moments in time when change is instantaneous.  Death is instantaneous. A nuclear explosion happens instantly.  How about the Big Bang?  From a human experience today, is it always the case that the experience of real life ends at the moment of death.  What if you are incapacitated and incapable of doing or feeling anything while your heart is still beating?  Some people might feel that this is as good as being dead.  Who is to decide? Consider also that time frames tend to be relative, or that the concept of time is itself relative.  There is actually a process related to a phenomenon such as the Big Bang, or even  a nuclear reaction, and processes do take some time, even if that time might seem to be extremely short. (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/18/science/space/detection-of-waves-in-space-buttresses-landmark-theory-of-big-bang.html)

Looking at the concept of time frames from a different angle, consider the fact that if one were to measure the lifetime of individual humans relative to the lifetime of the universe, our existence is of the order of the order of 1 out of about 100000000 units of time (if we live that long)!  Homo sapiens have only existed for much less than less than 1/10000th the lifetime of the universe, and “intelligent life” for much less than that. Our individual existences, and even the existence of humanity are but an instant if the observation is being made from a particular perspective.  But we think we know that our real lives are not instantaneous.  It all depends on your perspective.

We can use absolutes to get concepts across, to try to organize the workings of our human society, and perhaps even to find ways to move humanity forward (using whatever definition of humanity that works for us), but I think we are truly enlightened only if we are able to get even beyond these “absolutes” and wrap our heads around the reality of the ambiguity of almost everything, and incorporate this concept into the principles that we all individually live by.  Life is analog!

The article below is somewhat related.  The argument is being made that nothing is truly alive.  But I think the actual issue here is that we are trying to fit a digital concept of life and death into a world that is really analog.  It is a hard argument to make that life and death are not real for humans.
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/13/opinion/why-nothing-is-truly-alive.html?ref=opinion
(Even if you do not read the article, click through to this website to see something unique.)

An Article about Limiting the Wastage of Food

Last week I wrote about how large quantities of bread sometimes go to waste at the food bank that I volunteer at, primarily because there is sometimes a massive oversupply of the product.  This seems to happen seemingly without an adverse impact on the organization that is responsible for this oversupply of product, and in spite of the wastage it causes.  Supply and demand seem to be completely independent factors in this kind of a situation in this economic model.

By pure coincidence, I recently got an e-mail from an online organization that does campaigns for social causes that addressed wastage of food all over the world.  This was one of the articles that was linked in the e-mail.  I am glad that I am not alone in thinking that there is a problem.

http://time.com/money/3913386/food-waste-feed-hungry/

One of the things that you notice when you are sorting out products in the food bank is the presence of the expiry dates on the packaging.   If I am not wrong, every packaged product for human consumption in the US has an expiry date.  The issue is that the passage of the expiry date does not necessarily mean that the product has gone bad.  Also, in spite of the fact that different types of product are subject to different manners of expiry, this “expiry date” concept seems to be applied and used in a uniform mindless manner in commerce.  Stores remove products on or before their expiry dates from the shelves even if they are good.  I expect that there are legal reasons for doing this, but sometimes removal of product before the expiry date might be done of the reason of managing appearances.  I also suspect that expiry dates are generated in a conservative manner, i.e., the dates that are used are themselves well ahead of the dates when the product is expected to go bad.  You try to be more flexible in terms of managing this aspect of handling products in a place like a food bank (as opposed to a store), but at the end of the day, there definitely are legal constraints to be followed everywhere.

In order to exist as a society we have to set up an bunch of rules that people agree to follow (or are forced to follow) for the betterment of the larger population.  Unfortunately, the use of rules has to involve the setting up of absolutes, and thresholds for certain types of behaviors and expectations, when in fact there is often a continuum, and some ambiguity, in what constitutes reasonable logical behavior and expectation.  I call this phenomenon digital behavior in an analog world.  I recently wrote something on this topic. I will perhaps add an entry to my blog on this subject.

Here’s Lookin’ at You

I have taken a lot of pictures of birds over a long period of time and it is nearly always a challenge.  Most of the time the birds notice that you are around, and for some reason or another they do not like to have the wide barrel of a zoom lens pointed at them.  Their response is usually one of wariness, and some birds are more skittish than others in this regard.  So taking a picture of of a bird requires a lot of quiet, a little bit of stealth, an absence of any kind of abrupt movement, an infinite patience, and a good zoom lens.  You take your chances and sometimes you are successful.

Since most birds I encounter have eyes on the sides of their head, they can see you even when they are not facing you.   You do realize that the bird is looking at you, most often because the bird will in all likelihood react to your presence in some way.  It does not seem unnatural to you that the bird has not turned its head towards you.  I am guessing that there is no depth to the image of you that the bird is processing internally in this scenario.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But there are also some occasions when the bird will actually look at you, or try to look at you, straight on.  It will either turn its head towards you or it will seat itself in a position facing you.  I wonder if the bird is getting a better stereo vision from this position, and whether there is something that induces the bird to face you from a certain angle or the other depending on the circumstances.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Finally, there are the birds whose eyes are in front of their head.  I think they may have no choice but to face you when they want to look at you.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I imagine that these types of behaviors of different kinds of birds are a result of evolution and of changes that have taken place over a long period of time.  It would be great to understand why certain species developed in certain ways and how it might all be related to their survival in some form or the other.  Fascinating stuff!  Too much to learn in too little time!

The Economics of Wasted Bread

It is still a shock to me when I end up throwing all kinds of bread from the full big blue bins at the food bank into the dumpster. The sight convinces me that there is something that is wrong with a system that allows such waste.   But, at the same time, it appears to me that the people in the business of selling food do not themselves think that there is an real problem that needs to be addressed.   It must be that there is money being made regardless of all the waste, and perhaps the organizations responsible for all this waste believe that this is still a pretty efficient way of operating when all factors that affect their bottom line are taken into account. So they keep charging along and doing what they do. It is only a volunteer at a local food bank dealing with the tons of food he is throwing away who is making this comment. So who really cares!

So here is what happens.   The food bank gets bread that is close to its expiry date from grocery stores. Since bread is a perishable product, it needs to be given out to people quickly once it gets here. The facility often ends up allowing people to take as much bread back with them as they want because they get so much of it, and because they do not want it to accumulate in the warehouse. The problem is that there is sometimes still too much bread left over, and the excess bread often needs to be thrown out into the garbage dumpsters – since there is even more bread being delivered to the food bank at the same time for the next day! If you tried to save all the bread that you got in the cooler you would not have the space for other essential items.

What must be going on is that the big grocery stores are, in general, putting more product on their shelves than they are selling.  They must know that they are doing this! For some reason they can afford the waste. They are almost certainly charging  prices for the bread that is much much more than its real value in terms of materials used and the cost of production. Because of their large volume of product, they are capable of operating a much more efficient system than a smaller mom-and-pop store, and they are also capable of selling this bread for a much lower price than the mom-and-pop store in spite of the tremendous amount of waste. Food is being thrown away in massive quantities! The only time you hear of the huge grocery stores running out of bread is when there is some sort of extraordinary event that is anticipated, most often related to the weather.

Isn’t there something wrong with a system in which we accept such waste without saying a word? This is especially galling when you hear of people suffering from hunger, and even starvation, even in these modern times.  Why do we not speak up?  Is it because many of us in this country who are relatively well-off do not see the real value of this kind of food, especially since it has become inexpensive to us? This kind of situation is not always simply a result of natural market forces. Think about farm subsidies and price controls that impact the price of grains.  Separately, think about competition between the big organizations with plenty of resources and small mom-and-pop stores that are trying to make their business work with a fundamentally different cost structure for doing business, where the big guys want to put the small guys out of business by flooding the markets with lower cost products.  Think about you and I trying to save a buck or two when we shop at the big stores, and our support of the system as it exists today.  While you could expect any economic system to have its own biases, there is something to be said about a situation where we end up with so much waste, especially when there is so much need.

How many of you grew up in a household where the value of food was emphasized one way or the other, the general idea being that you only took what you needed, and you always tried to consume what was on your plate without throwing food away? Unfortunately it seems that this principle does not easily scale to the bigger picture.  Or perhaps people do not even think in these terms any more.