Opinion: Why Germans should panic-buy during the pandemic | Opinion | DW | 24.10.2020

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Opinion: Why Germans should panic-buy during the pandemic

As infections rise anew, supermarket shelves are quickly emptying of toilet paper and other items. Panic-buying, it seems, is in again. And no lecturing by political elites will change this, DW's Fabian Schmidt writes.

During the first wave of coronavirus infections back in March, Chancellor Angela Merkel implored the population to act responsibly and refrain from stockpiling food and other items. She said hoarding supplies — the German word is Hamsterkauf, or shopping like a hamster — was both unnecessary and selfish.

Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner recently told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that there is no need for Germans to indulge in a new round of panic-buying. She also said stockpiling was illogical and selfish. Klöckner added that "much of what we buy ends up in the trash." 

Schmidt, Fabian

Fabian Schmidt writes for DW's science department

Klöckner's reasoning is just as illogical. If panic-buying is unnecessary, it cannot simultaneously be selfish. If, as we are told, there is enough food for everyone, then it should not make a difference if someone decides to irrationally stockpile large quantities of it.

By urging us to act sensibly and limit ourselves to buying only what we need, the minister is effectively saying we do face a potential, if temporary, food shortage. To show solidarity with others is certainly helpful. But that does not imply we should not stockpile food and other necessities. 

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Complaints about food waste irk me. According to a WWF study, each year 18 million tons of food are thrown away in Germany. This translates to 225 kilograms (495 pounds) per person. The University of Stuttgart found that 60% of this food waste is produced by private households. If we factor this into the equation, each German wastes 370 grams (13 ounces) of food per day on average.

Can this be true? Are most people not rational enough to avoid discarding the food that they have bought with their hard-earned cash? In my home, there is no food waste at all aside from the occasional bit of stale bread.

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Maybe we should follow the example of supermarkets, especially the low-cost ones. Despite the vast quantities of food that they handle each day, they have managed to drastically cut down on waste. The University of Stuttgart researchers found that supermarkets account for just 5% of food waste — which works out to about 30 grams per person per day. 

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Empty the shelves

Production chains and delivery and sales infrastructures have been so well optimized that unnecessary waste has been reduced to an absolute minimum. Most major supermarket chains have begun taking effective steps to reduce their environmental footprint and act more sustainably to improve their image. 

The amount of unnecessary food waste produced by the agricultural and industrial sectors — 17% of Germany's total — is somewhat higher than in the commercial sector. But this translates to about 100 grams per person, on average, which is a negligible amount. Moreover, a certain level of food waste is inevitable in market economies.

The hospitality industry and similar businesses generate a fair bit of unnecessary food waste — about 17% of Germany's total, according to researchers. But does anyone seriously want to check into a hotel that serves individually rationed portions of marmalade and bread for breakfast, as was common in the 1960s?

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The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that about 40% of crops rot or are eaten by mice in the world's most impoverished countries. A substantial portion of food stuff never even makes it to consumers. 

The reason for this is that many impoverished countries lack the storage facilities and methods of preserving food that Germany has. Silos, in short, are a godsend for humanity.

The new wave of stockpiling that we are witnessing should makes us realize one thing: Scarcity does not result from a shortage of products on the market — but from the prospect of such a shortage. Anyone buying a few months' worth of pasta, canned food, juice boxes, ultrapasteurized milk, rice, toilet paper and the like is merely hedging against potential market fluctuations. 

Stockpiling food items and such is, therefore, is anything but selfish. In fact, it is a very sensible thing to do — provided that none of the food goes to waste. Stockpiling is a good thing, if done correctly. Anyone struggling to buy an extra supply of toilet paper right now, with shortages looming, should have heeded this logic.  

This article was translated from German by Benjamin Restle.

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