According to a report recently released by the UK Institution of Mechanical Engineers, up to 50% of the world's harvest is wasted. That corresponds to 1.2-2 billion tonnes of food every year, and is extraordinary when there are 870 million undernourished people in the world (ie consuming less than 2100 calories per day). Not to mention the immense waste of land, energy and water. It is no overstatement that people starve in a planet of extraordinary abundance.
|Food waste: an immense challenge that can be overcome.|
Spoiled for a lack of markets, not up to quality standards or whatever, there is an immense amount of waste in our food system. And so, to me, the problem of feeding the global population is less a matter of insufficient land or yield, and more a matter of distribution and waste.
To take a leaf from Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountains Institute who refers to the immense opportunity for oil independence through "drilling under Detroit" (ie gaining large quantities of oil by improving fuel efficiency of motor vehicles), there is an equally immense opportunity for "Farming the rubbish bin".
Even more usefully, there are many role models that can be referred to in order to develop up the patchwork that will eventually form a solution to the problem.
One of the more banal, and so easier resolved, sources of waste is quality. That is, apples that aren't red enough, two-legged carrots and the like are all downgraded from food use, potentially ending up as animal food or worse, left to rot.
Foodstar Partners is one company that is doing something about this. They organise and alert shoppers to "flash sales" for produce that either doesn't meet aesthetic requirements or is approaching its expiry date. In Northern California, Foodstar has gone so far as to work with Andronico's to sell this produce for a discount in a dedicated part of the supermarket. And this is not dreadfully deformed produce. It is apples that are a little small, or apples with 37% red coverage rather than the minimum 40%.
Another approach is Culinary Misfits in Germany. They are a catering service that deliberately uses non-supermarket grade vegetables, even making a feature of this in naming their meals ("Crooked Parsnip and Twisted Cucumber Soup"). They highlight the beauty of non-conformity.
|Beautifully deformed vegetables and fruit. Source: Culinary Misfits|
Sometimes the problem is that food is not wanted, but cannot find its way to those who need it. This is a field that has seen significant development recently, with organisations like Foodbank in Australia, City Harvest in New York City and Food Shift in California. There are many, many more of these organisations around the world.
The principle behind these organisations is to receive donations of unwanted, but otherwise unspoiled food and distribute it to those who need the food. City Harvest alone collects 19,000 tonnes of excess food in a year, helping to feed in excess of 1 million needy New Yorkers.
Shifting our understanding of waste
Sometimes the solution is to have people shift what they see as waste. So, for instance, many people would not consider pineapple skins, lamb hearts or egg shells as anything other than waste. Graffiato, a fine dining restaurant in Washington DC, has decided otherwise and offers a "Gems" tasting menu that incorporates what would otherwise be scraps. Others have followed suit.
Adding value to inedible food
Once food has reached the point where it can no longer be eaten, there is still a fair bit that can be done to add further value before you need to think about treating it as a waste.
One is to make new food. The pig has long been the garbage disposal unit of choice, but it is making a modern comeback in many places. One example is Barthold Recycling in Minnesota, USA. They take food waste from restaurants, pasteurise the food in a truck converted to a big cooker, and then feed it to their pigs.
|Recycling food scraps into pig food. Source: Pioneer Press|
A similar approach, but with broader application, is Eco-Stock in New Zealand. I wrote about Eco-Stock in an earlier post Eco-Stock: Upcycling waste food. At core, rather than feeding food waste directly to pigs, Eco-Stock converts the food waste into general stock feed for consumption by cows, calves, poultry and pigs.
Another value add is to convert spent coffee grounds into bioactive compounds for dietary supplements. Researchers in Spain have found that the grounds are rich in compounds that could be extracted for use in the food and pharmaceutical industries.
Diverting food from landfill
Once you've gone through all of the steps above and still have food that is unfit for consumption, there is still no need for the food waste to go to landfill (where it is a very powerful generator of methane and contributor to leachate). The food can be anaerobically digested or composted.
Now I won't go into the many, many different technnology providers of digesters or composters. That may be the subject of another post. Rather, two stories around organisations that have gone down this route are well worth telling.
The first is Waitrose, a supermarket chain in the UK, which achieved its target of no food waste to landfill by the end of 2012. It does this by donating food near its expiry, and anaerobically digesting or composting food unable to be donated. Incidentally (or perhaps critically), Waitrose is part of the extraordinary employee owned company John Lewis Partnership.
The second fascinating approach to food waste is the city of Malmo in Sweden. This city is serviced by a large, well run incinerator for its waste. Notwithstanding this, the city collects food waste separately for anaerobic digestion. The biogas generated is used to fuel city buses.
Farming the bin
The task of feeding a growing global population on a land base that is steadily degrading through erosion, salinisation and the vagaries of a changing climate will be difficult. It is not, however, impossible if new farmland is opened up - the farmland contained in the rubbish bin.
I have given some examples here, drawing from my Scoop.it magazine The Future of Waste. I would welcome any pointers to other organisations doing similarly incredible stuff with waste in general, or food in particular. Have a look at the About page to find my contact details, or just comment on this post.