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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

Surplus v Sustainability

Surplus v. Sustainability: America’s Obsession With Food

by Scout Gabrielle Miller

“Waste Not, Want Not” is a familiar old adage, but looking at it through the technicolor lens of 2018 makes the phrase feel antiquated and empty. What does it mean? The dictionary will tell you that the idiom’s intended warning is that “wise use of one’s resources will keep one from poverty.” In modern day America, where there is a surplus of almost everything, it may not feel very applicable.

The phrase might instead bring to mind grainy photographs of Depression-era folks in line at the soup kitchen or working in a garden. Maybe it conjures images of WWI and WWII posters cautioning about wastefulness or educating about rationing. In any case, it does not bring to mind the $165 million worth of food wasted annually in the United States; and it certainly does not bring to mind the one in seven American citizens who face hunger each day (Move For Hunger). The hard truth is that the United States is bad at food management: most of us contribute to the horrifying $165 mil. wasted, while another large portion of the country is left seriously wanting. Over the past few years the people of the United States have fought back against the unsettling tide of food waste issues with awareness campaigns like the “green” movement, the “slow food” movement, and the “shop local” movement. Of course, these movements have helped to change the consumer mindset in a positive way, but changing a few shopping habits is only a small part of the solution: “Waste Not, Want Not” might be more applicable to modern America than we think.

The waste of good food starts in the field. In 2016, The Guardian reported that sixty million tons -over 50%- of the produce grown in the United States is thrown away each year. Why? The Guardian article sheds some light: “Vast quantities of fresh produce are left in the field to rot, fed to livestock, or hauled directly from the field to landfill, because of unrealistic and unyielding cosmetic standards.”

That’s right, folks. Sixty million tons of fit-for-human-consumption produce never makes it to the grocery store because it isn’t attractive enough. It seems the American search for photoshopped perfection has reached much further than celebrity photos and lifestyle magazines. “In our search for the perfectly round, perfectly colored, perfectly sized peach, we as consumers ultimately drive much of this waste,” says Dana Gunders, a senior scientist in the National Resource Defense Council’s Food and Agriculture Program. Sometimes entire fields of produce are plowed under to decompose and fertilize the next crop because of “blemished” produce: it costs more to harvest and sort the “bad” crop from the “good” crop than the farmer will net selling it.

“Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from a corn field.” This quote from former President Dwight D. Eisenhower still holds true: we cannot put the blame on farmers. They know that the fruits and vegetables they produce will taste wonderful, even if they aren’t the ideal shape or size. As is usually the way with capitalism, the largest buyers are able to set the standards and the price for the produce they sell, and big grocery stores will not take anything less than perfection. Large grocery chains will sometimes even fine the farmer if they do not provide the agreed-upon volume of produce of the right quality. This means farmers who want to sell their product have no choice but to offer only perfect produce. Smaller businesses simply cannot get good prices for less-than-perfect produce: those who try to sell blemished fruits and veggies to mom-and-pop grocery stores, independent buyers, co-ops, or farmer’s markets have just as much trouble. “I’ve been offering [blemished squash] for six cents a pound for a week and nobody has pulled the trigger,” said one farmer in an interview with Suzanne Goldberg, an environmental correspondent for The Guardian. “There is a lot of hunger and starvation in the United States, so how come I haven’t been able to find a home for six-cents-a-pound food yet?”

While over half of the viable fruits and vegetables grown in America never make it to the dinner table, statistics indicate that about 40% of ALL food produced in the U.S. goes to waste. Fortunately for America, meat production has a lower waste quotient. According to a paper published by the NRDC, meat has a waste margin of 22%, in comparison to the whopping 52% for fruits and vegetables. However, with Americans consuming an average of 270 lbs of meat a year (in comparison to the people of Bangladesh, who consume an average of 4 lbs of meat per person per annum), 22% is still a massive amount of meat gone to the landfill. Of that 22%, only 3% is lost in production (that is, the raising of livestock): the bulk of the wasted meat can be traced to individual consumers. “Thirty percent of milk produced in America is thrown away because of inefficiencies that let it expire or spoil before it can nourish anyone. All that energy, all that shipping, all that cattle feed, all that refrigeration, all that effort – nearly a third of it is wasted, thrown away, trashed,” Edward Humes writes in his book “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash.” Seafood wastage is even worse: in a time when “Save The Ocean” campaigns and overfishing run rampant, the shocking news is that about half of seafood in the U.S. is squandered. If seafood wastefulness is not reduced, seafood resources will become scarce, aquatic life will continue to suffer dramatically, and oceanic ecology will be thrown offbalance (Love, et al.).

So what causes consumer food waste? There are several factors. Fear of not having enough often drives consumers to over-buy. In 1973, when Bill Rathje first started The Garbage Project (a study which took the science of understanding culture through archeological digs and applied it to local municipal dumps, garbage cans, and landfills), there was a shortage of feed for cattle that caused an extreme spike in the price of red-meat. Surprisingly, during the shortage the amount of beef ending up in the trash more than doubled. Turns out it’s human nature: when people think something is in short supply, they panic and try to stock up, buying more than they can possibly eat before the expiration date.

Consumers also tend to buy too much when there are too many options: why choose Pepsi or Coke when you could buy both? “A country like America has twice as much food on its shop shelves and in its restaurants than is actually required to feed the American people,” said writer and environmentalist Tristram Stuart in his 2012 TED talk. Ironically, according to self proclaimed “Garbologist” Bill Rathje, you produce less waste if your diet is repetitive and consistent. “Novelty breeds waste,” Edward Humes agrees. With twice as much food as we need it’s no wonder consumers over-buy and under-use. And yet, one in seven Americans still goes hungry. Imagine the number of food banks and homeless shelters that could be stocked entirely on food that never makes it off the farm. Imagine the number of meals that could be made out of food that goes bad in your fridge.

Imagine the number of hungry people that could be fed on “ugly” produce. If you’re imagining millions, you’d be in the right ballpark: if we reduced the margin of wasted food by just 15%, the U.S. could feed upwards of 25 million more people.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advocates the sustainable management of food with their “Food Recovery Hierarchy” pyramid. The second tier, “Feed Hungry People,” encourages people to donate unused, edible food to food banks in order to better feed the hungry. On their website, they provide valuable resources to anyone who wishes to donate time, money, or food to the cause. Organizations like the National Resource Defense Council and Move for Hunger offer lists of do’s and don’ts for consumers: do shop local (at small mom-and-pop groceries and farmers markets), don’t throw away food (compost instead), and do educate yourselves about expiration dates. They also offer a list of organizations that help reduce wastefulness, like Imperfect Produce and Hungry Harvest, produce delivery systems that sell the produce that doesn’t meet big-store cosmetic standards. Imperfect Produce boasts nineteen million pounds of food saved since its inception in 2015; Hungry Harvest claims 8 million pounds of food saved, with 750,000 donated to “hunger-solving organizations.” If organizations like these continue to grow, we may see a change in the impossible standards set for the produce industry as large grocery store chains try to weed out the competition.

What about long-term solutions to the problem of American corpulence? There are many things that will help, but all of them boil down to one word: Sustainability. The problem we need to solve is much bigger than imperfect peaches and the price of beef: wasted food is responsible for approximately 8% of global pollution. To put it in perspective, that is more pollution than is generated by the entire country of India (Guardian). Large-scale farms that use chemical fertilizers and genetically modified seeds to mass produce a singular crop, sometimes called Industrial Agriculture by organic farmers, are causing huge waste and pollution problems beyond just wasted food. Nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers are depleting soil nutrients and over-saturating the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. Cow manure contributes to global warming, pesticides permeate and poison soil and watershed, and rivers dammed to provide irrigation disturb the habitat of fish and endanger wildlife. Most people claim that industrial agriculture is a necessary evil – even if the U.S. has a food surplus, how else can we fight hunger in third world countries? How can we provide enough food for the ever increasing global populous? Certainly organic agriculture, which cannot be protected with chemical insecticides and genetically modified seeds, can’t feed 7.5 billion?

In a 2006 study titled Organic Agriculture and the Global Food Supply, a team of researchers sought to compare industrial agriculture with organic agriculture to determine if the world’s increasing population could be fed with organic practices. “The environmental price of green-revolution agriculture includes increased soil erosion, surface and groundwater contamination, release of green-house gases, increased pest resistance, and loss of biodiversity. (Green revolution in this case does not refer to common current environmental usage of the term green but rather refers to chemically intensive farming practices beginning the mid twentieth century.) Advocates [for organic agriculture] argue that more sustainable methods of food production are essential over the long term… If the latter view is correct, then we seem to be pursuing a short-term solution that jeopardizes long-term environmental sustainability.” Their consensus? An increase in the number of small, organic farms would enrich the soil, detoxify the air and water poisoned by chemical sprays, and increase food production. More organic farming would provide more jobs, lowering unemployment and homelessness. In combination with a change in consumer habits and grocery store cosmetic standards, organic farming could decrease agricultural pollution and lower food-waste percentages dramatically long-term. This is a sustainable solution.

U.S. Food Bulletin, Circa WWI

America has an obsession with food, an obsession that has led us to a 165 million-dollar problem. Food production in the United States takes up 80% of our fresh water, 50% of our land, and 10% of our energy budget, yet we waste 40% of our food. Our ancestors knew better. Grandma pickled vegetables so they’d last through the winter, Great-Grandpa fed the kitchen scraps to the pigs and the chickens. We have the opportunity to make the world a better place by downsizing our own wastefulness. As individuals we can think before we buy, eat everything we put in our fridge and in our pantries, and we can compost table scraps. As communities, we can gather grocery store surplus to feed the hungry in shelters and churches, we can support local farmer’s markets, we can promote healthy habits. As a country, we can petition big stores to change their cosmetic standards for produce, we can advocate for organic agricultural practices, we can raise awareness of the issues. We can bring about change. We can “Waste Not, Want Not.”

Surplus v Sustainability


Works Cited:

Imperfect Produce, www.imperfectproduce.com

Badgley, Catherine, and Jeremy Moghtader “Organic Agriculture and the Global Food Supply” Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems

Walsh, Brian “The Triple Whopper Environmental Impact of Global Meat Production” Time

“Food Waste on the Farm” Move For Hunger

Humes, Edward. Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash

Hungry Harvest, www.hungryharvest.net

Goldenberg, Suzanne “Half of All US Food Produce Is Thrown Away” The Guardian

Gunders, Dana National Resources Defense Council

Love, Dave C., et al. “Wasted Seafood in the United States”

“Reduce Wasted Food By Feeding Hungry People” Environmental Protection Agency

Stuart, Tristram “The Global Food Waste Scandal” TED: Ideas Worth Spreading

Townsend, Alan R., et al. “The Climate Benefits of Better Nitrogen and Phosphorus Management” Issues in Science and Technology

Spotlight On: Crops & Soil

Beautiful Grasses

What follow are a series of magnificent hundred-year old botanist’s watercolors depicting several useful grass varieties. Artworks such as this are found on the pages of Small Farmer’s Journal quite regularly and may be part of the reason that the small farm world considers this unusual magazine to be one of the world’s periodical gold standards.

Prairie Grass A Jewel Among Kernels

Prairie Grass: A Jewel Among Kernels

by:
from issue:

Years ago, my brother advised against plowing the patch of prairie on the back forty of our Hubbard, Iowa farm. “Some day,” he predicted, “that prairie will be as valuable as the rest of the 40 acres. We know how to grow corn; but that prairie was seeded by the last glacier.” Left untilled by generations of my family, the troublesome treasure has now become a jewel among a cluster of conventional crops on the farm.

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes

This is the account of how one farm put more horse power into the planting, cultivation, and harvesting of its potato crop. Ever since we began farming on our own in 1994 one of our principle aims has been the conversion of our farm operation to live horse power wherever feasible. This has meant replacing mechanized tools such as tractors and rototillers and figuring out how to reduce human labor as we expanded upon the labor capacity of our work horses.

Beating the Beetles – War & Peace in a Houston Garden

Blooming that is, unless the cucumber beetles arrive first.
And arrive they have … “At first I thought they looked like big, yellow lady bugs.” Paul said, “Then I looked…

Henpecked Compost and U-Mix Potting Soil

We have hesitated to go public with our potting mix, not because the formula is top secret, but because our greenhouse experience is limited in years and scale. Nevertheless, we would like to offer what we have learned in hopes of showing that something as seemingly insignificant as putting together a potting mix can be integrated into a systems approach to farming.

Horsedrawn No-Till Garlic

Horsedrawn No-Till Garlic

We were inspired to try no-tilling vegetables into cover crops after attending the Groffs’ field day in 1996. No-tilling warm season vegetables has proved problematic at our site due to the mulch of cover crop residues keeping the soil too cool and attracting slugs. We thought that no-tilling garlic into this cover crop of oats and Canadian field peas might be the ticket as garlic seems to appreciate being mulched.

Peach

Peach

by:
from issue:

The Peach is a showy tree when in bloom. There are double-flowered varieties, which are as handsome as the dwarf flowering almond, and they are more showy because of the greater size of the tree. The flowers of the Peach are naturally variable in both size and color. Peach-growers are aware that there are small-flowered and large-flowered varieties. The character of the flower is as characteristic of the variety as size or color of fruit is.

Cabbage

Cabbage

by:
from issue:

Cabbage is the most important vegetable commercially of the cole crops, which include cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, kohlrabi, collard, broccoli, and many others. It also ranks as one of the most important of all vegetable crops and is universally cultivated as a garden, truck and general farm crop. The market for cabbage, like that for potatoes, is continuous throughout the year, and this tends to make it one of the staple vegetables.

Cultivating Questions Ridge-Till Revisited

Cultivating Questions: Ridge-Till Revisited

Delay ridge building until early fall so that the cover crop on the ridge does not grow more than 12” tall before winter. The residues from a short cover crop will be much less challenging to cultivate than a tall stand of oats, especially if tangly field peas are mixed in. Waiting for the winterkilled cover crop residues to breakdown as long as possible before ridge-tilling in the spring will also make cultivation much easier until you gain familiarity with the system.

Of Peace and Quiet

LittleField Notes: Of Peace and Quiet

by:
from issue:

Walk with me for a moment to the edge of the Waterfall Field. We can lean on the gate and let our gaze soak up the mid-summer scene: a perfect blue sky and not a breath of wind. Movement catches your eye, and in the distance you see a threesome hard at work in the hayfield. Two Suffolk horses, heads bobbing, making good time followed by a man comfortably seated on a mowing machine. The waist high grass and clover falls steadily in neat swaths behind the mower. What you can’t help but notice is the quiet.

Cultivating Questions

Cultivating Questions: Follow-Up On Phosphorus

We like to think that the bio-extensive approach to market gardening minimizes the risk of overloading the soil with nutrients because the fallow lands make it possible to grow lots of cover crops to maintain soil structure and organic matter rather than relying on large quantities of manure and compost. However, we are now seeing the consequences of ignoring our own farm philosophy when we resorted to off-farm inputs to correct a phosphate deficiency.

Cultivating Questions Winterkilled Cover Crops for a Mild Climate Part 2

Cultivating Questions: Winterkilled Cover Crops For A Mild Climate Part 2

Finding just the right cover crop-tillage combination for crops planted the last half of June has always been a real challenge in our location. While surface-tilling mature rye and vetch in May works well for fall crops established in July and August, this cover crop-tillage combo does not allow enough time for decomposition and moisture accumulation for end-of-June plantings.

Farm Manure

Farm Manure

Naturally there is great variation in manure according to the animals it is made by, the feeding and bedding material, and the manner in which it is kept. Different analyses naturally shows different results and the tables here given serve only as a guide or index to the various kinds. The manure heap, by the way, is no place for old tin cans, bottles, glass, and other similar waste material.

Swallow

Rotation As A Means Of Blight Control

Every farmer knows that when a crop is grown on the same field year after year, it becomes inferior in quality and the yield steadily diminishes.

Cultivating Questions

Cultivating Questions: Concerning the Bioextensive Market Garden

One of our goals when we first started farming here was to develop the farm as a self-contained nutrient system. Unlike the almost complete recycling of nutrients which can take place on a livestock operation, we are always amazed – even a little disturbed – to see how many tons of fertility and organic matter leave the market garden each year with so little returned to the good earth.

Lost Apples

Lost Apples

The mindboggling agricultural plant and animal diversity, at the beginning of the twentieth century, should have been a treasure trove which mankind worked tirelessy to maintain. Such has not been the case. Alas, much has been lost, perhaps forever. Here are images and information on a handful of apple varieties from a valuable hundred year old text in our library.

Soil, Vegetation, and Acidity

From Dusty Shelves: Audels Gardeners and Growers Guide teaches us about soil acidity.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT