Food Tank, an aggregator of trends in the food industry that lean toward sustainability, has organized a number of conferences. I attended the one on food waste at NYU, not only because I live in the city but because I wanted to see whether the discussion about “waste” would go beyond the food that consumers, retailers, and restaurants throw away, and “loss” (the food left to rot in the fields, unpicked, or that never makes it to market), but to the waste inherent in our decisions about what foods we grow and for whom—specifically, energy- and calorie-inefficient feed crops, meat, and dairy products.
As it turned out, not only was this issue only touched upon once, and very late in the day, but meat itself was front and center: Niman Ranch had supplied whole cuts of meat, which sat undressed on large platters at the lunch. I don’t know whether this was meat that would have otherwise gone to waste, or whether the pile was completely scarfed down, thus exemplifying the attendees’ commitment to waste reduction. Nonetheless, it was a stark reminder that waste didn’t extend to the loss of the animals’ lives. Vegetarians, vegans, and “gluten conscious” consumers were, as usual, catered for parenthetically in the program.
The conference began with Danielle Nierenberg, the founder of Food Tank, interviewing chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill Farm. Barber outlined some of the central realities of the current industrial food system, which is that food is currently grown for certain characteristics: weight (much of it water), uniformity, ability to travel, and store-ability. Flavor, taste, nutrient density, and variety of breed aren’t valorized, and nor are regional variations in food. This is why food tastes bland and same-y wherever you are. Monoculturation, Barber continued, has meant that three companies almost 90 percent of our seeds, partly because the cost of R&D in developing varieties is so prohibitive.
Barber is involved with Row 7 seeds, which are bred to be grown in specific regions, an important consideration not only to encourage regionalism and varieties of taste but to provide resilience and adaptability because of climate change. The seeds themselves need to be adaptable, since heirloom yields are typically lower than industrially grown varieties. We also need to use more of the plant, Barber added—such as with broccoli rabe, where the entire plant and not just the floret is eaten.
The next speaker was Tobias Peggs, from Square Roots, a hydroponic, year-round farming operation (using adapted shipping containers) based in Brooklyn, which was also developing a NextGen Farmer program to train indoor farmers. (Peggs’ presentation was the first of a series of 15-minute interludes between panels.) Peggs claimed his company reduced a lot of waste: his plants grew in a controlled environment, which meant consistency; the farm was near the customers, and thus reduced food miles; it was resilient to pathogens, with a modular network that enabled the farmer to isolate problems quickly rather than halt the whole system; and it was precise in how much it could grow. The challenges Square Roots faced was in rolling out their farms around the country, and how waste might be distributed nationwide. Peggs didn’t address energy use growing food without soil and sunlight, and how much this might be considered “waste.”
The first panel, moderated by Julia Moskin, food writer for the New York Times, featured Roy Steiner of the Rockefeller Foundation and Rhea Suh of the National Resources Defense Council. Steiner, head of “food” at Rockefeller, noted that 40 percent of food gets wasted or lost, which amounts to 340 lbs per person per year, as well as 66 trillion gallons of water. Indeed, he said, if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs) after China and the United States. To deal with food waste and food loss, Steiner said, it was necessary to intervene at every stage of the supply chain. Loss reduction, he claimed, could provide more value for money than breeding a new strain of food with a higher yield.
The Food Waste Program at the Rockefeller Foundation, Steiner continued, was attempting to develop zero waste programs, particularly in the hospitality industry, which was a huge challenge. First, it was necessary to make people aware of the problem and then measure how much food was being lost or going to waste. Secondly, he observed, it was finding ways to help the organization, company, etc. to stop wasting: for instance, by using smaller plates or not cooking so much food, and for the industry to grow more nutrient-rich and -dense foods.
Rhea Suh opined that states and cities could lead the way in creating policies that discouraged loss and encouraged waste reduction. One area, she thought, ripe (ahem) for action was in expiration dates, which, she said, were completely meaningless, except perhaps for baby food. NRDC had put out tips to help folks, but Suh was concerned that the onus was always placed on consumers to make wise decisions rather than the system itself being corrected. She saw opportunities for cities to pass more regulations, but also for the government to provide a holistic food system that would resolve multiple problems simultaneously.
The next panel was a conversation between Nierenberg and the composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Questlove and a 17-year-old vegan food activist called Haile Thomas, who teaches plant-based nutrition at summer camps through her organization HAPPY. Both of them, in the gentlest of manners, raised the issue of food justice. Questlove had been conscientized, he said, from the earliest days of his band, The Roots, as well as growing up in Philadelphia. Thomas had been influenced by her mother’s Jamaican roots. She was the only person to use the “v” word in the entire event—raising the possibility that (a) Generation Z are not afraid to claim the identity, (b) the rest of the audience would have seen her veganism as an extension of a youthful idealism or ideological rigidity out of which she’d eventually grow, or (c) that veganism was becoming some kind of racialized/radical marker. Thomas gave a shout-out to Harlem Grown, which whooped back: it would have been nice to hear more from them from the stage.
Next up with her 15-minute pitch was Homa Dashtaki, who described how her family-owned yogurt company (White Moustache) repurposes the whey it traditionally threw away into new products.
The final panel before lunch featured companies and restaurants fighting food waste. Speakers were: New Orleans restaurateur Dickie Brennan, Dadisi Olutosin at Plated Food Groupe, Brad Nelson of Marriott food services, Marco Canora of Hearth Restaurant, Katherine Miller of the James Beard Foundation, and Joe Folds of Pacific Foods. Environmental journalist Bryan Walsh moderated.
The speakers were practically oriented. Brennan emphasized the importance of reducing portions, educating young chefs, and described how his restaurants had employed oyster shells to rebuild coastal areas of the Mississippi damaged after the BP oil spill. Olutosin suggested redesigning the kitchen from the start to reduce waste: composting was important, as was finding creative ways to use ingredients you don’t normally do things with. Canora stressed the value of a dehydrator, learning to love the freezer, and looking at the food chain differently. He urged chefs to broaden their utilization of ingredients and to ask consumers to be more open to unfamiliar foods. Miller plugged the foundation’s Waste Not cookbook, and Folds talked about how Pacific Foods supplied a lot of plant-based and bone broth, which, as you might imagine, uses a lot of discarded or “waste” material.
After lunch, the audience heard a 15-minute talk from Sheryll Durrant, a member of the International Rescue Committee (a refugee resettlement organization) and the coordinator at New Roots Community Farm and the Kelly Street Garden in the Bronx. Durrant’s message was multivalent: food brought people together, it helped them put down roots (literally), it taught them survival skills, it provided them with healing and green space in an area that was polluted, economically underserved, racially segregated, and poor. Even though the farm and garden were near the Hunts Point Produce Market, the large food distribution center, she said, very little of that produce made it to her neighborhood.
There followed a panel on solving on-farm food loss with Rafael Flor, director of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Yieldwise; Marie Haga, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust; Tobias Grasso, president of Sealed Air; Elizabeth Mitcham from the department of plant sciences, UC Davis; Jane Ambuko, a plant specialist at the University of Nairobi; and Jack Algiere, farm director at Stone Barnes. Caity Moseman Wadler of Heritage Radio Network moderated.
First off, Flor mentioned the importance of locally grown staple crops (mango, maize, tomato, cassava) around the world, and how food loss wasn’t simply a rich indulgence but a crucial issue in the developing world, where much food was spoiled before it got to market through poor transportation networks and no refrigeration. In Tanzania, Flor said, Rockefeller had found that reducing food loss provided 30 percent more food security to smallholders (40 percent for women). Indeed, he said, it wouldn’t be possible to reach the Paris Accord goals without reducing food waste; to achieve those goals would require a different food system—one that was climate resilient, biodiverse, and met more nutritional goals.
Haga emphasized that we’d lost crop diversity and put our food system in peril. Four crops [rice, wheat, maize/corn, soy], she observed, were responsibly for 60 percent of caloric input, in a system that placed yield above all else. We were all responsible for this, she said, but farmers could help by developing plants with a longer post-harvest life before they deteriorated (such as cassava). Governments, to her mind, were vitally important in saving plants and seeds around the world. They needed to train farmers through adequate extension services to develop plants with stronger root systems to deal with rough weather—such as the Bermuda bean, of which there were only 29 left.
Grasso works for a company that wants to swathe food in air surrounded by plastic to preserve it, which seemed a counterintuitive way to consider waste reduction. His contribution was to valorize “ugly” food and call for the network to create streamlined chains.
Both Mitcham and Ambuko were plant scientists with connections to agriculture in the developing world. Mitcham works on produce handling and food and vegetable production. For her the “grade standards” for food were a problem, since they were based on appearance, quantity, and size and not nutritional value; we needed to train ourselves to re-imagine what “good” food looked like, and embrace the “ugly.” She also called for a “dry chain” to keep foods from molding in humid climates. For Ambuko, the problem was the absence of a “cold chain.” She noted the potential for evaporative cooling by using wet charcoal (although that clearly had sustainability issues because of cutting down trees) and zero-energy cool chambers. Keeping crops viable for longer was essential, she said, since mango loss (for instance) was up to 50 percent in Kenya.
Algiere pointed out to food loss from a lack of migrant workers being able to pick it. He, too, called for more diversity in food systems, and more farmers in the system. He said the subsidization programs were fine, but not adequate. We needed carbon sinks, habitats, watersheds, and soil conservation. If we valued those things, he added, we’d have more farmers.
Mid-afternoon saw Nierenberg sit down with Marion Nestle to talk about the food system. Nestle was typically pungent and straightforward. The problem with the American food system was overproduction, she said. It was designed to be wasteful, and produced 4,000 calories per person (far beyond what was needed). The food industry was geared, likewise, to sell calories and not nutrition. All the problems, she said, were political, and that we all voted with our fork. The solution for her was simple (and very hard): to run for office to change the politics.
Following Nestle, Sandy Nurse, founder and co-director of BK ROT, spoke for 15 minutes. BK Rot is a food-waste composting and micro-hauling service in Bushwick that has a close relationship to its clients, since they all live in the same area, and thus to the disposal of its waste. BK Rot processes 10–12,000 lbs of organic waste per month, and has turned food waste that otherwise would have gone to a landfill into 61 tons (!) of compost in a thousand square feet without using industrial machines. Nurse was quick to note that composting created well-paying green jobs (you could earn up to $30,000 per annum working at the site), supported local food systems and economics, and reduced hauling in the city.
The penultimate panel was on improving food recovery. Moderated by Ben Tinker of CNN Health, it featured Bonnie McClafferty, who worked at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition; André Thompson of New York Common Pantry; Elizabeth Balkan, the director of food waste at NRDC; Robert Lee, co-founder of Rescuing Leftover Cuisine; Karen Hanner, v-p of manufacturing partnerships at Feeding America, and Chris Cochran of ReFED.
McLafferty argued for political engagement in an agricultural economy, while Thompson noted that the equivalent of 225 million meals are missed every year in New York City alone. He had 1,600 families a week at his food pantry. He called for food to feed stomachs and not disease. Balkan was skeptical about looking at food provision as a charitable and volunteer endeavor, since it was simply not possible to deal with the logistics of delivering food at scale without a sound economic platform.
Ironically, Lee’s organization uses volunteers to pick up food 365 days a year from restaurants to supply food pantries; Hanner’s task is on an order of magnitude greater. Feeding America serves 46 million people, and, although hers was a charity, she felt it was important to supply business solutions to feeding communities, especially with more nutritious food. Cochran said ReFED’s goal was to cut food waste in the U.S. in half by 2030. It would do this by using data to prevent over-ordering and finding places to give extra food. Cochran also wanted the food system to ask itself not how to produce more but to feed people properly. Could you use a fee-for-service model, he asked? What about tax incentives to lower costs associated with food disposal, finding other earning models to complement charitable donations? And given that 15 percent of food waste was on farms, how would we make food waste everyone’s responsibility instead of no one’s responsibility.
It was during this panel that an audience member (Eric Darier from Greenpeace) asked whether, given the inherent waste, it might be better to move from meat-intensive diets. Cochran replied that plant-based meats offered a longer shelf life, which could cut down food waste, and that the inputs were greater for meat production (although, he added, that pasture might not be suitable for growing human food). McClafferty stepped in. She loved this question, she replied, because it let her talk about the realities facing pastoralists in developing regions. The biggest problem here was anemia, and the heme in meat provided essential iron. We needed a more nuanced conversation, she said.
But how nuanced had the discussion been? According to a 2012 NRDC report (citing a 2011 FAO report) 22 percent of meat and 20 percent of milk is wasted in the U.S. each year, while the FAO puts the global loss of meat and milk at the same amount, and of fish at 35 percent. Given how much caloric energy put in to meat compared to the amount of protein delivered (40:1 in the case of beef, 39:1 in chicken, and 57:1 with lamb), this seems a chronic waste. Nonetheless, the righteous concern for pastoralists was deemed to let everyone who wasn’t a pastoralist in the room and throughout the industrialized world off any obligation to address their meat consumption. After a relieved round of applause, the panel moved on to another question.
The final panel was an end-of-day shooting of the breeze between Tim Ma, chef and owner at Kyrisan, and Gabriele Corcos, the host of the Extra Virgin show, about being a chef, moderated by Charles Passy of the Wall Street Journal. Apart from Corcos’ amused lamentation that one of his daughters was a vegan (perhaps a junior version of Haile Thomas), it held little of note.
What to make of the conference? Clearly, food waste is a massive problem and solving it would contribute mightily to reducing GHGs, enabling food security, saving energy, and giving farmers much more economic value for what they grow. Municipalities are doing something and can do more. Obviously, an integrated, holistic solution from farm to table and beyond is necessary in order to create closed-loop systems rather than plugging leaks in the food chain or relying consumers to practice personal virtue (as has been the case for decades in recycling). Systemic change will require the integration of policy on city, state, and federal levels; and that will be hard to do, especially when the entire U.S. agricultural system is geared toward production at all costs.
Nonetheless, for all the technocratic competence and entrepreneurial zeal on display, this conference, like so many I’ve attended, appeared to hold a blithe trust in corporate responsibility, hi-tech wizardry, and “data-driven solutions,” and a reverence for the maverick genius and the cultural celebrity. In spite of the five-alarm warning raised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report (released five days after the conference), the majority of the panelists retained an assurance that left me cold. Haile Thomas who won’t even have reached thirty by the time the IPCC report says our window to keep global temperature increase to 1.5°C below pre-industrial levels will close. Her generation faces incredibly stark realities unless we make uncomfortable, and perhaps very un-nuanced choices about our comfort foods.
I take some hope from the fact that running through the conference was a more subversive, underground stream that ran counter to Big Picture/Big Business solutions. It was voiced by speakers (all of whom were women of color) working at the grassroots to integrate food into a model of social justice, resilience, and commensality. Here, food (from growth to decomposition) knitted together disparate communities not currently served by the capitalist-techno-consumerist model.
Listening to these women, it struck me that one solution to the waste problems raised by the monoculturism of food production was to stop treating everyone as waste. Perhaps if we genuinely valued farmworkers, the marginalized and diverse communities who worked that land (whether in rural areas or in the city), and the domesticated animals whom we discard, ignore, and lay waste to, we’d discover a resilience: a closed-loop holism that not only provided food security, remediated GHGs, and reclaimed land for people and not cars or luxury condos, but also generated social resilience, reduced ignorance and violence, and fostered human dignity. Perhaps that was the nuanced discussion we should have been having about food waste.