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Tuesday, 14 June 2011

What to do with leftover food?

As I wrote an article for a forthcoming book by UNESCO, I was reminded of a fascinating extract from Talmud that is worth sharing:

Grain being dumped into the open sea
“Some of the good things which Rav Chuna used to do: Every Shabbat eve he would send a messenger to the market who would buy up all the perishable vegetables which the gardeners had been unable to sell. These would then be thrown into the river. “Surely he should have given them to the poor?” [it is asked]. “No,” came the rejoinder, “they would then get used to getting it free and would not come to buy in the future.” “Perhaps he should feed them to the animals?” “It seems that Rav Chuna holds that it is not permissible to feed food fit for human consumption to animals.” “Perhaps he should not have bought them at all?” “No – if nobody would pay them, then the gardeners would produce less in the future.””

Why does Rav Chuna behave this way? Our natural inclination is obviously to give the food to those who are needy, but Talmud expects this response and explains that doing so traps people into a cycle of dependency. In today's society, using the basic models of supply and demand, grain is dumped into the sea in order to reduce supply and therefore maintain high prices. If the grain were instead given away, the price would slump and those producing the grain would not continue to do so (the third argument given by the Talmudic passage above). At least give it to the animals, then! Talmud says no - human food does not go to animals.

What can this passage teach us? It teaches us that the concept of bal tashchit, which I have mentioned before - the commandment to not waste anything - is very much a market-based concept. If it were not, then Rav Chuna would obviously be chided for wasting so much food. Bal tashchit must mean "unnecessary wastage." So in what way is this wastage necessary? It's extraordinary to think about, but it's necessary because without it the market would collapse and then no-one would get their food (since very few people own enough land to grow their own crops and rely on them). The market has to maintain a minimum price and sometimes food has to be dumped to maintain that price.

This is extremely challenging emotionally. In the short-term it might help the starving to dump food on them but in the long-term it locks them into poverty. Rav Chuna's actions are in one sense completely unsustainable and, in another, completely sustainable. Perhaps the answer is to create a more sustianable market but to do that the market first has to realise that it is unsustainable, and that recognition is very hard to foster.


  1. We hear less these days about the "butter mountains" and "wine lakes", a major criticism of the CAP. One wonders where these repositories of over-production were finally dumped; or are they still there, in the deep chiller? If subsidies are available to farmers it is hardly surprising that they would wish to maximise their profits by exploiting the many loop holes in a corrupt economic system. The production of any goods, manufactured or grown, is driven by economic forces, the most important of which is the profit motive.
    Many years ago Oxfam produced a damning report on the viciousness of foreign
    aid to the Third World; in essence, such "assistance" trapped the poor in a cycle
    of dependency. Fortunately enlightened donars of aid put in place the means of
    productions thus enabling populations to become self-supporting.
    It could well be that with the realisation that climate change is going to impact on
    ALL our lives, whether rich or poor, a greater degree of self-sufficiency is
    necessary to alleviate what lies ahead for humanity - the potential for mass
    starvation. Already we are witnessing crop failure, not just in the Third World, but
    much closer to home. The problem of wastage, endemic in western society, is
    now becoming an increasingly important focus for environmentalists. The
    emerging economies of Asia have a little catching up to do if they are to avoid
    the worst excesses of unbridled capitalism. The evidence of one's eyes may
    discount the problem of waste and impending catastrophe in food production.
    Arguably, the most successful industry in our country at least, is selling food!
    There seems to be no end to supermarkets mushrooming in every conceivable
    corner of the land. Shareholders are delighted, but the cost to farmers,
    consumers and animal welfare is less easy to calculate. However, there will be a reckoning and humanity will have to pay the price of its arrogance and complacency.

  2. I am really not sure about this. IF we follow the idea of made-work-for the hungry (as detailed in Moed Qatan) and leave the corners of our fields for gleaning - then their might be an argument that those who are hungry and hungry because they choice not to work. HOWEVER - without these being observed by not feeding the hungry we get starving people - we solve the problem by killing of the starving.

    Some families even in England are going hungry right now - i find the idea of throwing away food that could be given to the poor deeply worrying.

    Also am curious about how far we would take this - would we send items we no longer need to landfill rather than give them away? Or is it okay to give items to wealthy people but not poor people? On the maintaining an okay economy - should we not buy second hand books as it might put the booksellers out of business? and the same with clothes and everything else?

  3. Why have i found it so difficult to post a comment on this entry?

    Maybe only those who suffer true poverty, not the criteria used by Western Govts on there own population, but true true poverty have the right to answer?

  4. I think I understand the message here and can translate it into my own terms. For example, my sister is a single parent and when I commented on the fact that our parents helped her a lot (sometimes at the expense of my own children), she lost her temper, screaming, 'Its not my fault I am a single parent you know'. They had made her dependent on them, so much so that she was reluctant to anything for herself.
    Is this what you are trying to say?