In Part I of this series I examined my clothing purchase habits in order to reduce my contribution to the fashion industry’s environmentally unsustainable practices. Part II is a similar examination of my role in the agricultural industry. Both posts were inspired by a new book from Tatiana Schlossberg, Inconspicuous Consumption: the environmental impact you don’t know you have (Grand Central Publishing 2019).
Tatiana’s book opened my eyes to the issue of food waste. I had no idea of the enormity of the problem. The average American household spends $1,800 a year on food they throw away. Whether we’re throwing away fish or vegetables, meat or bread, we all think we throw away less food than average. That’s right, 76 percent of American’s think they throw away less than average. Just doesn’t work out does it? I mean we aren’t all living in Lake Wobegon.
No wonder my parents were always telling us to eat our food. As they guilted us to clean our plates because of the hungry children in China and Africa, I suspect they were also thinking of the money they were scraping into the garbage pail.
Not cleaning our plates isn’t our only contribution to food waste. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Waste FAQs reports that food is wasted at every stage of the production and supply chain. Between 30 and 40 percent of the food grown, produced, and cooked is never eaten. That’s 1.3 billion tons of food produced worldwide at substantial economic and environmental costs that doesn’t do anyone any good. The report concludes, one of the best approaches to reducing food loss and waste would be to not create it in the first place (emphasis added).
In Inconspicuous Consumption Ms. Schlossberg cites three specific ways we waste food in the U.S.
- How we grow food
- How we label food
- How we want our food to look
The way we grow food
Some of our production methods intentionally grow food with waste in mind. Let’s look at the way we waste food by growing one monoculture crop in huge swaths of the country -- CORN.
The U.S. is the largest corn producer in the world. If you were born and raised in the Midwest like I was, you’d know that corn is “the” monoculture crop in the heartland where some 90 million acres (that’s 69 million football fields) are given over to growing this one crop using intensive methods, fertilizers and pesticides to force high yields. In 2019 the U.S. produced 13.7 billion bushels of corn. That’s 767.2 billion pounds of corn or about 2,338 pounds for every man woman and child in America. The vast majority of all that corn, between 80 and 90 percent, stays in the States. Have you been eating your share?
Let’s see how the 2019 corn crop was used:
- Just over a third went into ethanol production.
- About 33 percent was used in animal feed. Corn is an ingredient in 95 percent of all animal feed.
- Most of the rest of the crop was turned into corn byproducts for human food such as corn oil and corn syrup - totally unnecessary and unhealthy ingredients now included in nearly every manufactured food product.
- A tiny portion was used for industrial purposes like biodegradable packaging, medicine substrates and other products.
Now the way I see it there are some real problems with dedicating 90 million acres to corn monocultures.
The great American monoculture corn crop matures at the same time making it subject to higher risk of weather caused losses. Which leads producers to plant more than they need - just in case. In America, industrial farmers plant something like 27 million acres of corn than isn’t actually needed. The area of about 1,100 cities the size of Chicago.
That’s 27 million acres of cropland that are plowed and have tons of fertilizes, herbicides, and pesticides applied. Which leads to more degradation from chemical toxins and fuel contamination, not to mention soil erosion. It means wildlife displacement, fewer bees, and other essential species. And it means polluted rivers and loss of fresh, clean water.
No one has described this destruction more concisely than Wendell Berry in his book, The Unsettling of America (Counterpoint Press 1977). More than forty years have passed and it’s like he could have written this yesterday.
“American agriculture has proved a disaster. A good farm should renew its soil with diverse cropping and manure, providing fertility for the future. Instead, American farming has become a hybrid of factory production and mining. It strips the soil of its organic fertility and replaces it with synthetic fertilizers, either literally mined (phosphorus) or produced with considerable amounts of fossil fuels (nitrogen). Its waste becomes a pollutant—the manure from industrial-scale animal operations and the fertilizer runoff from corn and soybean monocrops, which poison waterways and aquifers. When farms are turned into dirt-based factories, they lose their power to absorb and store carbon and begin to contribute, like other factories, to climate change.”
The Agriculture Lobby is Pretty Cozy with Congress
My personal problems with why the U.S. (and the world) is growing so much corn
My first and most obvious personal concern is with the stupidity and inhumanity of confining animals by the tens or hundreds of thousands in contaminated blockhouses, stuffing them with corn and injecting them with antibiotics to keep them barely alive until slaughter.
If you think those Chinese “wet markets” we’ve learned about recently are an abomination and still eat factory farmed meat, you really ought to look into what actually goes into that meat on your dinner plate. The fact of the matter is 95 percent of the animals grown for food in the U.S. are raised in factory systems that are no more humane or sanitary than “wet markets.” This level of cruelty is unconscionable if we would only stop to think about it. Most people don't due to a humdrum, everyday habit. We accept this evil not because we say yes but because we won’t say no.
Factory farms do not have waste treatment. They have waste lagoons that leak from the property into surrounding groundwater and streams, rivers, and oceans many hundred and thousands of miles away. When flooding is involved, as it often is, the runoff impact is exponentially worse for the people who live near these factory farms and downstream from crop fields. Almost every year Lake Erie is contaminated with an algal bloom resulting from pollution run-off affecting the drinking water of 11 million people. The Gulf of Mexico now has one of the largest dead zones (low oxygenated water) in the world - covering 6,000-7,000 square miles – as a result of nitrogen and phosphorus run-off into the Mississippi River. A major contributor is the cornbelt. The lack of oxygen decimates marine animals living in the sediment such as shrimp, crabs, clams and young fish.
The methane and nitrous oxide emissions released from factory farms contribute to global warming and the antibiotics and hormones leached into the groundwater damage not just people but the environment as well. The human impact for people living near a factory farm is a life of chronic disease that can range from headaches, earaches, and nose bleeds to respiratory ailments, brain damage, miscarriages, and child development issues among others.
Imitation of Food
Another thing that gets me riled up is that American industrial farmers plant more than 30 million acres of corn to feed people what author Michael Pollen calls “highly adulterated food-like substitutes.”
These products make people sick and obese and who pays the price? We do. Author Mark Manson says that corporations excuse their behaviors by saying they just “give the people what they want”. People may want their ice cream and soft drinks as well as their corn curls and Oreos but that's because the food industry created addictive products full of corn syrup. Today’s generation of children have a lifetime of exposure to these products unless they do the difficult job of weaning themselves.
It’s a train wreck that began 50 years ago and the cars keep piling up with no end in sight. Is this what you want for your children and grandchildren?
We’re not farmers and we’re not lobbyists spending an accumulated $1.5 billion since 1997 to influence congress. Of course, that’s only a drop in the bucket compared to the $11.5 billion in subsidies American farmers received from federal government tax dollars in 2017 alone. Then there’s the $26 billion given to farmers in years 2018-19 to compensate for the loss of exports to China. Right now, the newest bailout being distributed is the $23 billion earmarked for the agriculture industry in the Covid-19 stimulus package. If the distribution of this package follows the course taken with the trade bailout, the top 1 percent of farmers (the corporate farmers) will be further enriched at the expense of the small farmer. And the cycle continues.
Voicing my will against the kind of clout that big agriculture wields won't make a significant political impact. Nevertheless, I am obliged to live my life in the most ethically consistent manner I can. In our home we think the plant-based diet we have embraced is the best option we have to reduce our contribution to the suicidal tendencies of 21st century industrial agriculture -- the industry destroying our world, our health, and our future. One small step, it’s what I can do.
So much for the production side of the grotesquely distorted system that is modern industrial agriculture. There are even more issues with food waste if you’re willing to read on…
The way we label food
Would you be surprised to learn that most food labeling regarding product dating such as “Best if Used By”, “Use Before”, “Sell By”, or “Pack Date” is not uniform across the U.S. or European Union nor are they regulated? I sure was.
The USDA food labeling information specifically says that except for infant formula, product dating is not required by Federal regulations. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a similar document that acknowledges that most “Best if Used By” labeling is done by the manufacturers and relates to the quality of the product, not its safety.
Congress did look into creating a uniform national system many decades ago but it never went anywhere. This led to some states developing their own systems leading to even more confusion.
Definitions used in the U.S. are similar to those used in the EU
- Sell By: A date used by the grocery store for stock rotation. If they sell by this date the product should have a reasonable shelf life for the consumer. In some states there is a “sell by” or “expiration” date on eggs.
- Best Before and Use By: These dates are intended for consumers and are interchangeable. They represent the manufacturer’s estimate of how long the product will retain peak quality. Do not buy or use baby formula after it’s use-by date but other products do not have to be discarded if stored properly.
- Pack Date: This 3 digit code begins on Jan 1 as 001 and ends on December 31 as 365. It is used on egg cartons in some states.
- Can codes: The date of canning is a series of letters or numbers. It is used solely for tracking and recall. Cans may also have a Best Before or Use By date reflected as a calendar date.
A 2013 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic revealed that food expiration date practices in the U.S. are misinterpreted by 90 percent of Americans. I’ve read a lot of articles and I have to admit this is a quagmire. I understand now why it leads to a lot of food waste at the supermarket and in our homes.
Meat, poultry, fish, and dairy are particularly subject to waste because of their short shelf-life. This section of the food industry totals 11.5 percent of consumer waste by weight. Controlling this waste would have the largest impact on environmental degradation as I hope I made clear in the prior section.
The way we want food to look
There’s nothing prettier than a beautiful display of fruits and vegetables. We want our food to look ready for a still life painting. No blemishes allowed. The color and size have to look right. Ripeness is sniffed, tapped, and squeezed. Have you seen the stacks of sweet corn at the supermarket with their leaves pulled back to check for tip damage or unformed kernels? No one will touch those ears.
What about all the imperfect specimens out in the fields? Do they all get made into frozen products or jams? No, most fruits and vegetables grown for the table are not produced by the same suppliers who grow for the commercial packers so those seconds aren’t going to be scooped up. Or, if they do get scooped up they can be removed during sorting and discarded. That leaves those imperfect but completely edible plants rotting away in the field or the bin.
Food co-ops often help bring rejected fruits and vegetables to market. So does Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) that allows you to buy directly from the farmer with a subscription service. Gleaners are volunteers who come into a field or orchard and take the leftover unpicked product for personal and community food bank sharing. All are making a dent but there is still 30 percent waste.
Ideas to reduce food waste
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website has some of the best ideas for eliminating waste as individuals, businesses, and faith organizations.
Here are some of the steps we’ve taken in our family:
- Eat a plant based diet. Forgo animal products. While there is still waste throughout the farm to table cycle of a vegetable, the waste is minimal compared to growing the crop twice. You can eliminate the middle man/animal. And it saves a heck of a lot of water too.
- Understand Food Product Dating
- Purchase Fresh Food (as frequently as you need it). One of the things I love is to purchase tomatoes and red peppers from the local Fruteria y Verduria when they are on their last leg and reduced in price. They make great soups – gazpacho or hot tomato soup.
- Plan meals carefully. Have a list when you go to the market but leave room to make substitutions for what’s in season or what’s on sale. Just don’t buy more than you need. We make our own beans instead of buying the canned beans with high sodium. This core ingredient helps us plan 2-3 meals that will use those beans during the week so we only have to cook them once. Saves energy too!
- Eat leftovers. I know this sounds crazy but I once worked with a woman who refused to eat leftovers. All of her uneaten food from a restaurant or home cooked meal was thrown away.
- We have an EOWSF (End of Week Stir Fry) and use whatever vegetables are left. This also works for a soup, a casserole, or a stew.
- Tell one person about food waste. If you got to the end of this rather long article, please pass it on. We’ve all learned to work together to halt the spread of Covid-19. We can work together to reduce food waste too.
Susan Carey retired in 2017 after a long business career most recently in animal welfare leadership. She writes about her experiences as a recent retiree living in Spain. Susan lives in Valencia, Spain with her husband, Jamie, and the senior pets they brought with them from the United States.