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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.