Monday, November 17, 2014

Is Fast Food Consumption Unethical?

I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about the ethics of supporting the fast food industry. In the debate on solutions to hunger and poverty, it is important to note the high levels of food waste in the United States and ask what we could do to solve the problem.

The UN estimated in 2008 that it would take $30 Billion per year to solve world hunger. If we adjust for inflation, the current numbers would be just over $33 Billion, assuming no population growth (source: Adjusting for population growth (from 6.67B in 2008 to 7.2B currently), gives us a figure of just over $35 Billion. So let's assume a figure of $40 billion to adjust for any open variables. $40 billion to eliminate poverty worldwide.

I could compare that with other expenditures in the US government, but for the moment, I am simply focusing on how food waste reduction could impact world hunger.

According to a recent USDA study using figures from 2010, an estimated $161.6 billion in food was wasted in the US. The breakdown is right around 3 to 1 when broken down between retail and consumer food waste (the whole report is available here). Approximately $46.7 billion worth of food is thrown away by the retail industry; about $114.9 billion is attributed to consumer food waste.

Those numbers are sobering, and raise the question as to whether we should encourage the fast food industry to change some of their practices.

See, it's easy to get caught up in blaming the corporations, but in no industry is the direct correlation between consumer demand and corporate practice clearer than it is in the fast food industry. We can cite multiple examples of consumer pressure directly affecting the practice of the fast food industry. So ultimately we must ask ourselves, not a corporate CEO, if practices need to be changed.

We live in a culture where "instant" is the expectation and we fast become impatient with those who do not provide it. I live in a rural area and often have to drive 2 hours to reach job sites. During much of that time I am effectively off the grid. I have, on multiple occasions received several emails during that span of time, each more impatient than the last and expressing frustration that I have not replied to previous emails despite the fact I have not SEEN them.

That expectation often carries over into dining. I have informally observed service times with my stopwatch at the drive through and inside of a restaurant, and what I have noticed is, despite the fact they are very similar, we often perceive the drive through times as being longer because our expectations for faster service are set by the appeal of "drive through" service.

By looking at these numbers, I am inclined to believe that a simple change in our behavior could impact world hunger more dramatically than we realize. There will never be a point where either sector will reach zero food waste, although that number is optimal. But it is not unrealistic to consider that we could reduce our waste by 25% and have adequate resources, properly applied, to solve this problem.

This leads me to the question asked in the title sentence: Is fast food consumption unethical? I am inclined to believe that, as we push demand for a naturally inefficient method of supplying food, the answer is yes. There is more that we could change in our practices, and would need to, before we would even near solving this problem, but the very first, most impactful thing that we could do, today, to begin to address world hunger is to stop consuming fast food. And all indicators are that we would probably find ourselves becoming healthier in the process.

This is indicting for me above all else because, while I don't love fast food, I often default to it when I am on the road because it is easier. After dissecting this report, though, I am starting to think a trip to the produce section of the local market might not be that much more difficult, and would be more consistent with my core beliefs.