Organic agriculture examines ways to tackle food waste

The good people of Brussels were literally fed up with food waste.

A meal was provided in the city centre, completely free of charge for 6,000 people. The labour was volunteered. The food was rescued on its path to the landfill. Supplies included leeks that were deemed unfit for market because they grew too large, and bean trimmings that had to be removed to make the beans fit in their packaging.

The organizing group was Feed the 5,000, which gets its name from a Christian parable about feeding the hungry. It reminds us that one in eight people go hungry in a world that produces enough to feed everyone 1.5 times over.

This is obviously an ethical problem. It is also an economic and environmental problem when it comes to food disposal.

Experts at the recent Grow Saskatoon conference spoke about food security for those in Canada dealing with poverty. Some mixed messages came from this.

For instance, communal gardens were seen as interesting venues around which to build social programming. However, they were not seen as a cost effective way to provide food. It was cheaper to rent out the space and buy food with the rent money.

Perhaps this venerates the rare skill of those who can make a living producing food. But the attitude that food production is not economical and should be outsourced explains why so few people see farming or market gardening as a viable career prospect. That seems to me to endanger our food security even further.

Presenters at one of the Grow Saskatoon sessions discussed using tilapia, a fast growing fish, in combination with greenhouse production. The tilapia eat culled plant material and the fish wastes provide fertility for the plants. This mimics natural plant and animal systems by closing the food loop and provides a number of efficiencies.

A participant in a session looking for paths to food security asked about food waste and the response was: “The poor are not human tilapia.”

Obviously, the poor should not be condemned to eat garbage. With all the indignities that our society places upon the poor, they certainly don’t need another put down.

However, perhaps we of all economic stripes need to consider developing a more nuanced food system, with categories between pristine and garbage.

Perhaps it is hard for the mainstream food system to welcome diversity. Packages fill better and stack more effectively if everything is exactly the same.

However, mainstream systems also have the volumes needed to make cull processing effective.

Compost the truly inedible and use the irregularly shaped, oversized and outer leaves to make juice, stew and broth.

Waste would be reduced at the farm level if uniformity standards were less strict and reasonable markets were available for seconds. As well, it makes sense to feed plant culls to pigs and chickens as well as tilapia. So does composting, as a last resort.

At home, we need to remember our culinary traditions:

  • When the bananas get brown, they are ideal for banana bread.
  • When the tomatoes are soft, its time to make salsa.
  • Broccoli stems are great in soup.
  • Peels add nutrients to the broth.
  • Leftovers make good lunches.

What does this have to do with organic agriculture?

Organic agriculture is based on ecosystem values such as nutrient cycling and efficient use of nutrients. Colossal food waste is yet another feature of the mainstream food system that we need to reconfigure to be true to the core values of organic systems.

How can we do that? I think there are a number of approaches.

First, let’s share the quirky. A lot of people these days don’t garden. They aren’t familiar with two legged carrots, tomatoes that aren’t perfect spheres or zucchini that get a bit large.

Once people recognize these as perfectly normal, perhaps they’ll buy them too. Foodies find it trendy to buy oddly shaped heirloom tomatoes, flying saucer shaped zucchini and purple carrots, so perhaps the time is ripe.

Next, there needs to be a more reliable market for quality product. Community shared agriculture is one such option. Subscribers sign up at the beginning of the season, committing to and paying for regular purchases.

This allows operators to plan accordingly and to avoid the disappointment and waste that comes from rainy days at the market.

Operators often make arrangements with subscribers so that food baskets that are not picked up will be donated to the food bank. Sometimes they also arrange for baskets to be subsidized by churches and other benefactors so that lower income subscribers can participate.

Producers then need a viable market for culls. Fruit growers do a marvelous job of this when they add spreads, juices and wines to their product lines. Maybe these aren’t options for vegetable growers, but almost any vegetable can be pureed and hidden in a power-packed spaghetti sauce.

Could the cost of value adding be recovered in this way? For grain growers, cull grain has traditionally gone to the livestock feed market.

And finally, composting on the farm also makes eminent good sense.

At the Grow Saskatoon conference, organic farmer Michael Abelman said his operation didn’t really produce waste. He had sales and he had compost. Of course, any of the product that hits the compost while it is still edible is not reaching its true potential, but compost is better than landfill.

So can organic agriculture take a step closer to its core values and provide leadership in the area of food waste? The opportunities abound.

It remains to be seen if enough people will step forward and diversify the organic marketplace.

You can read more about the Feed the 5,000 meal mentioned at the beginning of this article here.

Brenda Frick, Ph.D., P.Ag. is an extension agrologist and researcher in organic agriculture. She welcomes your comments at 306-260-0663 or email [email protected].

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