Reducing food waste starts at home

Reducing Food Waste with Common Kitchen Utensils

I grew up with parents and grandparents who lived through The Great Depression, so I learned some valuable lessons about frugality by the way they lived their lives. Lessons like saving for the things you want rather than buying on credit, following a household budget so you can pay your bills on time, and never wasting anything, including the electricity to power a light left on in a room after you’ve left, the cold air in the refrigerator that escapes when the door is left open too long, and the crumbs in the bottom of a box of corn flakes that can be used in the meatloaf. The lessons about not wasting edible, usable food have had the most lasting impression on me.

When I was a college student on a very limited budget, my frugal food skills helped fill many gaps in my diet, like freezing the milk in my fridge in ice cube trays before leaving for extended breaks so I could thaw it and use it in cooking when I returned. Then once I graduated, got a job and had a full pantry and bank account, I still couldn’t bear to toss out a mangled crust of bread. Instead, I’d freeze it with other random pieces to be turned into crumbs the next time I need some. And I can’t stop myself from checking the misshapen fruits and vegetables in the discounted bin at the grocery store. If more of us would buy them it would go a long way to reducing the 36 million tons of edible food that get tossed out every year in the United States.

If it shocks you as much as it does me that so much food in this country is wasted while so many people do not have enough to eat, you do not have to wait for new government regulations to make a difference. There is plenty each of us can do right in our own homes to make sure we always use what we have and only buy what we need to avoid wasting food.  This Infographic from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics tells the whole story and you can visit eatright.org for more information on healthful eating or to find a registered dietitian nutritionist.

To help get you started, here are my top tips for getting every last bit of goodness out of the food I buy using some common household utensils.

Rubber Spatulas – They come in assorted sizes, shapes and handle lengths to make it easy to scrape the insides of jars, cans, bottles and other food containers. Without one you could be throwing out 2 tablespoons of mayonnaise in every quart jar and a teaspoon of tomato paste in every 6 ounce can.

Ice Cube Trays – This is the perfect way to save and freeze any extra stock, sauce, or gravy you have, or the milk before going on vacation. Just pop the cubes out once frozen and store in a labeled zip-top bag. Trays with lids help prevent spills and the transfer of odors from other foods. Ice cube trays can also be used to freeze fresh herbs that have been cleaned, trimmed and chopped and fruit juices, pulp or puree that can be used in smoothies.

Salad Spinner – You may not have to toss that limp looking lettuce, just give it a rinse in cold water and a spin to bring it back to life.  If it doesn’t revive enough for salad, chop it and add to a soup or smoothie. Spinning washed salad greens, herbs, and berries before storing in the refrigerator also helps to keep them fresh longer by removing excess water.

Sharp Paring Knife – By cutting away the blemished part of many types of produce (potato, bell pepper, carrot, apple, pear, winter squash) you can eat or cook  the remaining portion without risk. Removing all around the moldy edge on a piece of hard cheese or hard salami is also a way to save the rest.

Citrus Zester or Microplane There’s plenty of flavor to be salvaged from those lemon, lime and orange rinds, so be sure to wash and rinse them and collect what you want before cutting the fruit for other uses.  You can put grated zest, strips or strings in a labeled jar or zip-top bag in the freezer to have on hand when a recipe calls for it.

BONUS TIPS:

Add water, vinegar or wine to near-empty mustard and catsup containers, close cap tightly, shake, and then add to soups, sauces, or dressings.

Add milk to near-empty containers of peanut butter, honey, molasses, jam, jelly, preserves, chocolate syrup, pancake syrup, or maple syrup,  close cap tightly, shake and drink or add to a smoothie.

Read more in Reducing Food Waste from Farm to Fork.

Book review of GMO food

What’s So Controversial About Genetically Modified Foods?

First published on the “FoodAnthropology” blog of the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition.

Editor’s Note: This is the second of two reviews of this book, with a rather different perspective. For the first review by Ellen Messer, link here

What’s So Controversial about Genetically-Modified Foods? John Lang. Reaktion Publishers. 2016

If you want to write a book about a controversy, putting the words “genetically modified food“ in the title should help sell it. Genetic modification of food involves altering the genes of a seed to improve the traits in the plant. It is a difficult technology for most people to understand, and even harder for them to accept when used on what they eat.  A recent Pew Research survey on the risks and benefits of organic and genetically modified (GM) foods found 75% of those who are deeply concerned about GM foods say they are worse for one’s health than other foods, and 79% do not trust information about GM foods from food industry leaders. Is reading What’s So Controversial About Genetically Modified Food? going to allay their fears? Maybe not, but the book does fill a gap in the literature by providing entry to a discussion of how GM foods are just one part of a complex and consolidated food system that has made the global food supply more nutritious, affordable and plentiful than at any other time in history.

Author John T. Lang states his goal in this work was to move towards a more productive model of agriculture based on better policy and investment choices. He effectively uses the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMO) as a proxy for the failures of the current food system. The handful of companies that make GM seeds and agrochemicals serve as a more tangible target than the elusive international policies and trade agreements that have restricted land ownership and blocked investment in infrastructure, warehouses, distribution facilities, centralized markets, and other farm supports needed for local food production to succeed in many parts of the world.  Instead, readers are given an unfolding narrative of how the interconnectedness of the global food system created the need for the consolidation of agribusiness companies so they could operate more efficiently, standardize their products and meet the food safety requirements of their trade partners. These multinational companies were then able to use their vast resources to invest in the research to develop the GM crops that are now being blamed for a breakdown in the religious, social, cultural and ethical meanings of food.

Astute readers will find it difficult to accept this tradeoff. The more important message about this technology they will gain is that it is simply another tool for farmers, like the plough or tractor, both of which were controversial when first introduced.  Readers will come to appreciate that farming is a business, whether done by conventional or organic methods, and it faces the same problems of scale as any other business that tries to expand.  And like any other tool, GMOs can be replaced by ones that do a better job at solving a problem, so working with the companies that develop new technologies is the best way to have an impact on the design of the new tools. A poignant example of this is concept is found in this critique of sustainable agriculture by Tamar Haspel for The Washington Post.

Lang’s focus on GMOs as a surrogate for a broken food system also provides an expedient way to illustrate how central trust is to our relationship with food today. As Lang explains, fewer and fewer companies control every aspect of our food from “gene to supermarket shelf,” and the path our food travels is a “maddening, impenetrable maze.”  He says the food system has become so complex and entwined that it’s “almost impossible to ascertain the true origins of any given foodstuff.”  Is it any wonder the public finds it difficult to trust all of the players in the food chain, especially when they view companies, regulators, and policy makers as having their own vested interests?  This “trust factor” is further compounded by the indeterminate nature of scientific knowledge and the uncertainly and unintended consequences that go with it. Can we really say GM foods are safe? Can we say any food is safe? It has become easier for people to trust complete strangers to be their Uber drivers and Airbnb hosts than to trust government institutions and big corporations to protect the food supply.

The book provides a broad view of the issues that must be considered when discussing GM foods and the global food system and an opportunity to expand research into several key concepts introduced, such as risk-tolerance, the precautionary principle, and how the “technology treadmill” impacts industries trying to grow and compete. Intellectual property rights and patent laws are also briefly covered, but could be explored further as they apply equally to GM, non-GM and organic seeds and to all of the research conducted at public and private universities, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and international agencies,  not just private industry.

The discussion on labeling of GM foods in Chapter 3 opens up multiple channels for continuing research and debate. Questions to consider in a classroom setting include, Is GMO labeling about inalienable rights of consumers or personal preferences? Are GM foods different in any measurable way? Can we verify the use of GM seeds in the foods we eat? At what thresholds can GMOs be detected? Who will monitor adherence to labeling requirements and at what cost? Should we have international standards for labeling? Do laws requiring the labeling of GM foods mean we agree we should sell GM food?

Chapter 4 moves beyond the symbolic battle over GM food to expose the complicated way people actually make decisions about what they eat. Compelling classroom discussions could be generated by asking students why people say they are concerned about putting GMOs into their bodies, yet there is a global epidemic of obesity and its co-morbidities due to the poor food choices people make every day. Why do people say they do not believe the scientific evidence demonstrating the safety of GM foods that has been reviewed by international food safety authorities, yet accept the conclusions of those same authorities about the nutrient content of foods, absence of bacterial contamination and truth in labeling of ingredients? Why don’t people want to change their own eating habits to reduce food waste, eat less animal protein and consume fewer processed foods, but want the way food is grown and marketed to change?

Lang says these contradictions will not be resolved by providing people with more information on how GM foods are made since they view GMOs as tampering with nature, but that misperception needs to be addressed.  A discussion of the 2015 PEW Institute study that exposed the problematic disconnects between the public and the scientific community regarding the safety of GM foods would have been instructive here. Resistance to new technology is a well-documented human response, as chronicled in Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies (Oxford University Press, 2016), so Lang’s suggestion of “stronger safeguards and regulations” is not necessarily the answer.

My interest in the book stems from my work as a registered dietitian nutritionist and consultant to Monsanto, as well as my work as a cultural anthropologist focused on hunger and food waste. Its classroom effectiveness depends on how it is introduced and what additional readings are assigned, but it should be an effective tool to prompt discussion in undergraduate courses in agribusiness, anthropology, biotechnology, dietetics, ecology, environmental science, food science, horticulture, investigative journalism, nutrition, public health, and sociology. This book is also recommended for any casual reader with questions about the role of science and technology in producing our food.

CITED REFERENCES

Funk, Cary, and Brian Kennedy. 2016. “The New Food Fights: U.S. Public Divides Over Food Science.” Pew Research Center website, December 1. Accessed January 3, 2017. http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/12/01/the-new-food-fights/

Haspel, Tamar. 2016. “We need to feed a growing planet. Vegetables aren’t the answer.” The Washington Post website, December 15. Accessed January 3, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/we-need-to-feed-a-growing-planet-vegetables-arent-the-answer/2016/12/15/f0ffeb3e-c177-11e6-8422-eac61c0ef74d_story.html?utm_term=.1a4263e3eb3f

Funk, Cary, and Lee Rainie. 2015. “Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society.” Pew Research Center website, January 29. Accessed January 3, 2017. http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/12/01/the-new-food-fights/

Juma, Calestous. 2016. Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

 

Food Evolution shows how science can allay fears

A Review of the Documentary “Food Evolution”

Photo Courtesy of Robyn Flipse.  From left to right, Mark Lynas, Alison Van Eenennaam, Emma Naluyima, Scott Hamilton Kennedy, and Neil deGrasse Tyson

This review was first published in Monsanto L.E.A.D News & Notes

Before the start of the world premier screening of the documentary, Food Evolution, director Scott Hamilton Kennedy came on stage and asked the audience three questions:

                                  “How many of you know what a GMO is?”

                                  “How many of you avoid GMOs?”

                                  “How many fear GMOs will harm you?”

By my estimate, at least 25 percent of the approximately 300 people who filled the theater raised their hands and kept them up for all three questions. At the end of the film when the audience was asked again who believes GMOs will harm you, only two hands went up, hesitantly.

What happened in between speaks volumes about the 92 minutes we all spent together in the dark watching the controversy over genetically modified food unfold on the screen while listening to astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson narrate the tale.

Food Evolution was presented as part of DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary film festival, which showcased over 250 films in three venues in New York City from November 10 – 17, 2016. The description of the film in the event brochure said, in part, “As society tackles the problem of feeding our expanding population safely and sustainably, a schism has arisen between scientists and consumers, motivated by fear and distrust.” Not exactly a block-buster in the making, but the theater was packed.

The film was funded by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) FutureFood 2050 program. Their vision is, “A world where science and innovation are universally accepted as essential to a safe, nutritious, and sustainable food supply for everyone.” To celebrate the IFT’s 75th anniversary, they wanted to tell the story about how we’re going to feed the 9 billion people expected worldwide by 2050.

The movie opened with footage from several town hall meetings in Hawaii where the issue of growing Rainbow Papaya was being debated. One after another, fearful citizens expressed their concerns about using transgenic seeds to combat the ringspot virus that had decimated the papaya crop on the islands. The responses from elected officials confirmed the fears of the farmers and local population that planting genetically engineered crops would be harmful to their health. It also confirmed how little they knew about the science. We were only five minutes into the film and I couldn’t help but think it was going to be a lop-sided affair. Thankfully, I was wrong.

Appearances by Dennis Gonsalves, Ph.D., the Hawaiian native and plant virologist who developed the Rainbow Papaya and Mark Lynas, the British journalist and environmental activist who went from being an organizer of the anti-GMO movement in Europe to a supporter of the technology provided the calm and rational rebuttals to the confusion fueling the controversy. Their remarks were bolstered by the objective and evidence-based interviews with Dr. Robert Fraley, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at Monsanto and Alison Van Eenennaam, Ph.D., Animal Genomics and Biotechnology Extension Specialist at the University of California, Davis. A hat tip to common sense and levity was offered by the Science Guy, Bill Nye.

Those who oppose genetically modified organisms also had their say, from anti-GMO advocate Jeffrey Smith and anti-GMO attorney Andrew Kimbrell to environmental activist Vandana Shiva and food activist Marion Nestle. The levity on that side of the debate was injected by Food Babe, Vani Hari.

The true strength of Food Evolution was the way it confirmed everyone’s biases. It left no doubt that genetic engineering is hard to explain and we are uncomfortable with what we don’t understand. It aptly demonstrated that there are many types of truth and people rarely change their minds once they believe something. And it allowed science to play a central character in the story whether we liked and accepted it or not. Which begs the question, whose science was it?

Food Evolution tells the story of how we can have a safe and a sustainable food supply by helping us put aside divisive emotional and ideological differences. It shows us a truth we can all share. Having seen other less balanced documentaries on the subject of food production in the U.S., I was pleased to see the fair treatment given to this controversial topic. I encourage anyone working in the food-nutrition-agricultural space to see Food Evolution and recommend it to students, journalists and others who are seeking science-based answers about food.

Ugly fruits and vegetables are still nutritious

Reducing Food Waste from Farm and Fork

This post was written as a guest blog for DiscoverMonsanto.com. You can read the original post here.

The first club I joined as a child was the “Clean Plate Club.” My parents, who had made their “Clean Plate Pledge” after World War II in an effort to conserve food at home to help feed our starving European allies, introduced my sisters and me to the club. As a child, I never understood how the uneaten food on my plate could feed someone in another part of the world, but the message stuck with me. I now know that cleaning my plate was not the answer. Buying crooked carrots was.*

As a registered dietitian nutritionist who has spent my career promoting the importance of fruits and vegetables in a nutritious diet, I was shocked to learn that more than half of all fruits and vegetables grown are never eaten. The perishable nature of fresh produce can explain some of this waste, but the rejection of the “funny-looking” ones has become a major contributor to the problem. As a result, I’ve become committed to educating people about the challenges of food waste and what we can do to find solutions.

Food loss
Food loss is an umbrella term used to describe all of the postharvest food that never gets consumed. Some of this loss is unavoidable due to spoilage or processing losses that occur before the food reaches the marketplace. Food waste is a component of food loss. It represents edible food discarded by growers, retailers and consumers that is avoidable. This includes everything from leaving crops in the field due to their odd appearance to letting carefully selected food rot in our refrigerators after we buy it.

If you shop at a farmer’s market or have your own vegetable garden or fruit tree, you know that all apples are not the same diameter and all zucchini are not the same length. Have you ever wondered why you don’t see that much variety in supermarket produce aisles? It’s a chicken or the egg conundrum.

Food waste
Since the beginning of food commerce, every transaction between a produce vendor and his or her customers has been a closely scrutinized exchange. Shoppers have always felt the need to hold, squeeze and smell the peaches to find the best of the bunch. Sellers have vouched for the sweetness of their fruit by offering a slice to taste and a hint for making the perfect pie. This exchange has allowed buyers to gain trust in their produce vendors (if the results were favorable) and the seller to secure a repeat customer.

I know how valuable this relationship is whenever I buy food in an international market. Shoppers with little knowledge of the best quality standards for selecting fruits and vegetables and no attentive vendor to help them with their selection resort to choosing the best-looking items in the bin. When retailers are left with “unaesthetic” pieces they cannot sell, they stop accepting them in their orders. Farmers left with these “misfits” must find a processor willing to pay enough for them to cover the cost of harvesting and transporting them, or simply plow them under.

The produce industry now uses specifications for many crops based on size, color and weight – not what is edible. These specifications not only appeal to the visual cues consumers are using to make a purchase, they also make it easier to pack melons, peppers or tomatoes into boxes that can be evenly stacked on pallets and loaded onto trains, trucks or planes for transport. And once those boxes are in warehouses, their uniform counts and weights expedite the processing of store orders and the successful execution of this week’s schematic display in the produce aisle

As a result, shoppers have become accustomed to seeing only perfect produce, while perfectly edible, but “disfigured,” fruits and vegetables go to waste. After learning more about the food waste issue, I became committed to finding a solution. It came during a visit to the Monsanto research farm in Woodland, California.

While participating in an in-field breeder chat with cucumber breeder Neschit Shetty, Ph.D., I learned that selective breeding was used to grow cucumbers so they would be just the right size to fit into pickle jars. That was an “ah-ha” moment for me! If plant scientists can do that, I realized they can help farmers grow fruits and vegetables that meet the appearance standards consumers now expect in addition to ensuring they’ll taste great, contribute to a balanced diet and be easy to use in our time-stressed lives. These seed breeders can also breed crops to satisfy the environmental concerns of farmers and logistical requirements of retailers so fewer of them are left in the fields.

For me, that is a win-win solution to one piece of the food waste problem. Another is to use smaller dishes so I can keep my credentials in the Clean Plate Club without eating more than I need!

*The popular baby carrots found on every crudité tray are nothing more than “misshapen” carrots that were cut into bite-sized pieces. This was the brainchild of an innovative carrot farmer who wasn’t able to sell his crooked and oversized carrots so decided to have them cut into a smaller size and shape instead of plowing them under. It turned out to be a very profitable idea since consumers are willing to pay more than double for these whittled carrots than the bigger ones they must cut themselves.