Column We have to stop thinking about food waste as waste. It actually has a lot of value.
In the Western world, we have a serious food waste problem. Overall, about one third of global food production is wasted annually, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. But there is a discrepancy in where that food is wasted.
In Europe and North American, per capita waste by consumers is between 95 to 115 kilograms (209 to 254 pounds) per year. Compare that to Sub-Saharan Africa and South/South-East Asia, where the amount of food waste comes in at 6 to 11 kilograms (13 to 24 pounds) per capita per year.
In the United States alone, 40 percent of food goes uneaten. Of course, this is a problem that extends across the supply chain, from farm to table, and a lot of food waste is attributed to inefficiencies in the food system. Most of us don’t have much impact on specific parts of the food supply chain, but we do have control over what happens in our own kitchens.
Part of solving the problem of food waste is entirely rethinking the term. When we say “waste” we’re immediately led to believe that those food products don’t have value. But there is so much food waste that is in fact quite valuable, from our own kitchens to restaurants to entire cities.
Recently, Dan Barber made headlines for his pop-up WastED, where he spent three weeks turning his NYC restaurant Blue Hill into a haven of essentially, upcycled food, food that otherwise would have been destined for the rubbish or compost bin. Smashed pulp from a juicer was turned into a burger patty and stale bread was given new life.
Barber had struck a chord; many of us are aware of our wasteful habits but we feel incapable of dealing with them. Are we really going to turn all of our kale stems into pickles? Are we going to dry the peels every time we eat an orange?
We might not, but maybe we should. As Hannah Goldfield wrote in a review of Barber’s endeavor in the New Yorker, “As one food comes into fashion, another tends to fall out. But asking people to confront their food biases—to expand their culinary imaginations in the way that chefs and the citizens of less abundant societies do every day—seems like a worthy exercise.”
It is a worthy exercise because we are privileged enough to live in an era where we’re not forced to reduce, reuse, recycle. Just like you can go to IKEA and buy a new chair instead of fixing the old one, food is so cheap that it’s just as easy to toss produce that seems a bit off and replace it with something new. In turn, we’ve lost the art of putting food scraps to good use; the art of culinary upcycling.
There was a time when we used every single part of an animal, every single part of a vegetable. Why? Because it was all our forefathers had. If you caught a fish, you ate the flesh and used the head to make a soup. You didn’t throw an apple out because it had gone a little brown. In other words, whole animal and whole vegetable cooking.
In this era of waste, a new business model has presented itself in the world of food: taking food waste from its inevitable trash can destination and turning it into economic profit instead. In Ireland, N17 is a brewery whose business model isn’t just about making beer, but about making other products as well. Spent grain gets used to do everything from grow mushrooms to make dog biscuits, all which diversify the list of the brewery’s sellable products, and increase their income. In Belgium, the Brussels Beer Project makes beer from stale bread that can no longer be sold.
And those are just businesses focused on products for the consumer market. There is also the use of food waste on a larger, more municipal level. Many cities now have inventive composting initiatives to make sure residents are easily able to get rid of their food waste. And then there is the ever-growing potential of biogas facilities, turning food waste into sustainable fuel. More and more cities in the U.S. are starting to head in this direction, which is why it’s essential to ensure that the right infrastructure is in place to make these operations a reality on a larger scale.
Food waste can be a feast, but we have to force ourselves to think out of the box. We have to ditch the idea that throwing things away is the best option, because it isn’t. At home that means thinking about what can be used instead of tossed. Those carrot tops are begging to be made into a pesto. And on a larger scale, it means supporting initiatives that help reduce the inefficiencies in the food chain, but also businesses that don’t just think in terms of waste and profit. Because as we can see, waste can in fact be profitable.
After all, food waste isn’t waste, it’s opportunity.
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This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’ weekly column at EcoSalon: Foodie Underground, an exploration of what’s new and different in the underground movement, and how we make the topic of good food more accessible to everyone. More musings on the topic can be found at www.foodieunderground.com.