A California carrot farmer invented the baby-cut carrot while trying to reduce food waste. Perhaps he knew that nearly one-third of all the food grown or produced in the world is wasted. In this episode of Unfold, we’ll examine how and why food gets wasted on the farm and in the supply chain. We’ll take you to a landfill to show you what happens to the food that you scrape off your plate. The episode examines the unexpected reasons why we waste so much food and how finding solutions to the problem can help feed a growing population.
In this episode:
Edward Spang, assistant professor of food science and technology. His work focuses on food loss and waste and the efficiency of linked water, energy and food resource systems.
Elizabeth Mitcham, director of the Horticulture Innovation Lab and a UC Davis postharvest expert.
Eric Oddo, program manager, Western Placer County Waste Management Authority
AMY: Hey Alexa, check it out. Got my healthy snack, a bag of baby carrots. Want one?
ALEXA: Yeah, I love baby carrots.
AMY: You know, these are actually baby-cut carrots. There’s a difference.
ALEXA: I bet you're going to explain the difference to me now, aren't you?
AMY: How did you know? So baby carrots just look like smaller versions of the full grown carrots, you know the ones with the leafy tops and everything. You’ve probably seen them in those fancy restaurants you frequent.
ALEXA: Yeah, because I go to so many of them. But yes, I know that they do sell them there.
AMY: Baby-cut carrots, which are two inches long and peeled and come in these nice little packages, were invented by a California carrot farmer.
AMY: Yeah, in Bakersfield, back in the 80s. This farmer got tired of having to throw away imperfect carrots, those that the consumer wouldn’t go for, that might be too twisted or knobby or whatever.
ALEXA: Yeah I saw this carrot one time, on the internet, of course, that looked like it had crossed legs. You could actually Google it.
AMY: Anyway, he thought, Why waste more than 400 tons of carrots a day when you can instead take an industrial green bean cutter-
ALEXA: Which obviously every carrot farmer just happens to have laying around the house, right?
AMY: And cut the imperfect carrots into perfect two-inch lengths, then take an industrial potato peeler-
ALEXA: Again, every carrot farmer must have one of those just lying around the house!
AMY: And peel it to perfection!
ALEXA: Well, that's a fabulous story, Amy. Why should we care?
AMY: Two reasons. One, I like baby-cut carrots. And I like sharing interesting stories I find on the internet. And two, it was an innovative solution for preventing food waste.
ALEXA: That's three reasons, Amy.
AMY: Oh. I was never very good at math.
ALEXA: Food waste is such a huge problem.
AMY: Yep, we found that out by talking to Ned Spang, an assistant professor here at UC Davis in the Food Science and Technology Department.
NED: All the food that we’re cultivating in the field, and all the animals that we’re rearing or fish that we’re capturing, you put that all together across the supply chain. One third of all that food never gets eaten.
AMY: How does that strike you?
NED: It strikes me as a major problem, you put a lot of resources into food products, it requires a lot of land, a lot of water to grow crops, a lot of energy to transport this food from one place to another to refrigerate it, to process it, so if we put all those inputs into this food, and it’s ultimately not eaten, it’s not the best use of those resources.
ALEXA: Not the best use of our resources? That's probably a bit of an understatement. It's terrible.
AMY: And Ned told us the waste doesn’t start with what you scrape off your plate. It happens all along the food supply chain.
ALEXA: And experts believe that if we can stop food from being thrown away, it could go a long way to help feed the hungry and a growing population.
AMY: Not to mention preventing it from ending up in a landfill and contributing to climate change.
ALEXA: It’s a major task. but maybe we can come up with ideas like that carrot farmer had in Bakersfield.
AMY: Which is why we’re calling this episode of Unfold...
ALEXA: You’ve come a long way, baby carrot.
AMY: You mean baby-CUT carrot.
ALEXA: Uh. Whatever.
(UNFOLD THEME MUSIC)
ALEXA: Amy, i’m guessing there is only one good place to start a podcast episode about food waste...
AMY: Yep. Where most of it ends up- at a landfill. So i went to one. In Western Placer County – that’s just northeast of Sacramento
ALEXA: Why did you go way out there?
AMY: Good question. The Waste Management Authority in Western Placer County not only has a landfill, but a composting facility and of course, a MRF.
ALEXA: A what?
AMY: A MRF. A materials recovery facility. It’s about 50 acres. Just one side of the building looks like you’re walking into a giant airplane hangar. It’s where i met Eric Otto, the program manager, to show me around.
ERIC: All the residential and commercial waste that has been received in the county shows up here. This is the receiving floor where the garbage trucks will unload and then we’ll put it into a pile and do some initial sorting to pull out large stuff like tires, like wood like large pieces of plastic.
AMY: In front of us, truck after truck after truck drive in and dump trash. It’s both garbage and recycling mixed together before it’s sorted.
AMY: They just dumped one load of trash and it is really disgusting. There’s food waste, there’s an old shoe, there’s cardboard boxes, there’s metal, there’s an old vacuum cleaner, there’s a couch. A printer just landed near me.
AMY: Eric says about 200 trucks a day drive into this receiving area.
ERIC: We take in about 1,000 tons every weekday a little less on the weekends.
AMY: And some of it is food. If it ends up in here, it goes to their landfill where it sits forever, generating methane, a potent greenhouse gas. In California, the laws require only big generators of food waste - like large restaurants, supermarkets and food processors –to recycle their food waste. Eric takes me outside to show me.
ERIC: We have a pile in front of us that is relatively new and uncomposted food waste and organic products in there. So you can see a lot of the food still mixed in there. I can see some sweet potatoes and some oranges and other kinds of fruit, it looks like someone rolled it around in a bunch of dirt and is pretty mushy and is starting to decompose. Then that’s mixed with a lot of ground up green waste.
AMY: You know look at these, some of this food does not look like it’s spoiled. I mean obviously I wouldn’t want to eat it now, but when it went into the garbage it probably was edible.
ERIC: Oh absolutely! But you know we as a society, when you go into the grocery store, everything has to be perfect and look nice and even something that is slightly blemished, you’ll find that those groceries stores take it off the shelves because they know they know that it won’t move.
AMY: Gosh I mean, I mean this is amazing to me.
ERIC: It’s equally shocking and saddening, where there are so many places where folks don’t have enough to eat and we’re throwing away perfectly good food.
AMY: The amount of food we throw away is staggering. In California, about 18 percent of materials that go into the landfill is wasted food. We throw away about 30 million tons in the U.S. And worldwide, we waste 1.3 billion metric tons. Alexa, I gotta say, I did some math.
ALEXA: Uh oh.
AMY: No really, this time I looked it up and used a calculator. To put that 1.3 billion metric tons into perspective- that’s more than 9 million blue whales, which the largest mammal on earth.
ALEXA: That makes me really sad. On that note, let’s unfold how all this food waste ends up in the landfill. Because like we said earlier, food waste is not only what you scrape off your plate.
AMY: Right, there are also food losses. Which Ned says start where the food is grown.
NED: There are losses that are left in the field when food is not harvested for one of many reasons. Could be market prices don’t make it worthwhile to harvest some crops in the field or you might have weather damage, for example, hail damage to peaches in the field and not collect that out of the field.
AMY: Some food also might not look right and farmers know it won’t sell. In fact, there are official USDA grade standards for food that play an unintentional role in food losses. These are legal quality standards that the industry has to meet in order to market their product with certain labels.
ALEXA: Beth Mitcham, a UC Davis post-harvest specialist in plant sciences, told us about that.
BETH: Each of these grades will allow a certain amount of defects and misshapen product. In a lot of cases, there are a lot of criteria that are based on the appearance of the product, so how uniform the shape and the color and things that may not have anything to do with the eating quality or utility of the product. And therefore, it’s not worth the cost of labor and handling for the farmer to harvest it so it gets left behind in the field.
AMY: This is just extraordinary to me, Alexa because just because if something looks wrong, that they are going to leave all this food behind in the field.
ALEXA: But at the same time it makes sense, because think about the way that our perception of things are, a lot of the time it's visual.
AMY: Right. You might be asking, ”Aren’t their groups and organizations that go out on farms and pick up all those peaches?”
ALEXA: Yeah. It’s called gleaning. And there are definitely people that do that and take the food to food banks.
AMY: The problem is that the scale of food recovery on the farm is so small compared to ultimately what is lost. And Ned Spang says it’s really difficult to do.
NED: One of the real issues that came up in our discussions with growers is that during harvest time- a direct quote is that they operate like a house on fire. They have so much going on and so many people to manage and orders to fill it’s really hard to have other people come onto the land at harvest time and collect some of these crops, it’s just a logistical challenge.
ALEXA: And Beth told us all these losses at harvest time, add up.
BETH: So the estimates for post-harvest losses in the United States from field to consumer are more on the order of about 15 percent. Once you get to the consumer level it’s about 40 to 50 percent.
ALEXA: So we only have ourselves to blame for all that food waste.
AMY: Yep. Consumers won’t pick out that peach at the grocery store if it doesn’t look perfect, like we said, right? If it’s slightly bruised- like how many times have you done this, Alexa? That banana that looks just a little bruised, I’ll go for the other one.
ALEXA: And that behavior of turning away the imperfect produce that you’re talking about, it actually reinforces those USDA grading standards.
AMY: So it’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy, right? And here’s another thing about us picky consumers. We live in fear of the best by date.
ALEXA: Or is it sell by?
AMY: Or best if used by?
ALEXA: It’s all of the above, which is why it’s so confusing.
AMY: The biggest misconception is that food past its sell by or best by date is unsafe.
ALEXA: But Ned told us that’s actually completely wrong. It's not an expiration date.
NED: Generally, those are recommendations from the manufacturer. Those are not regulations or a very scientific representations of what is going to make you sick or not. It really is a metric of quality usually to make sure from the producer’s perspective of this should be on the shelf this long where we can guarantee quality.
ALEXA: That’s right, it’s the company telling you it may not be perfect if you wait too long to eat it.
AMY: Like a Triscuit past its "best by" date might be slightly stale. What’s more…
NED: The other issue with best buy sell by dates is that they’re not the same from state to state. There is a lot of variation so that really compounds the misunderstanding on the consumer side and there really are some efforts right now to really try to harmonize the language and the consistency of how those labels are put on food products.
AMY: The rule, according to the USDA, is that foods that don’t have signs of spoilage can be sold, purchased, donated and consumed beyond the “best if used by date” or “sell by” date. It’s not about safety. Of course, there is one caveat- dates on infant formula are always about safety.
ALEXA: So what can we do about all this waste? Our experts say there are some small things consumers can do that could make a huge difference.
AMY: Number one, make frequent trips to the grocery store rather than waiting a week or two and buying everything all at once.
ALEXA: That would prevent you from having to throw out spoiled food that you didn’t eat in time.
AMY: Number two, Beth suggests planning your meals so you know exactly how much to buy.
BETH: Buying smaller quantities and then learning about how to properly store things at home I think also can help.
AMY: I have to say Alexa, it’s hard these days to buy small quantities if you go to some stores. I went to the store the other day because it was on my way home and I swear the smallest bag of shredded cheese I could find was three times the size of my head, so you can imagine it was pretty big.
ALEXA: And Beth says those stores that only sell food in large quantities are in some ways feeding our food waste problem.
BETH: Unfortunately I think it does play a role because the quantities are just so large if you’re not on top of it, it’s a lot of food that can easily go to waste.
AMY: Beth says unfortunately, buying in bulk also means a huge cost savings, which is important when you’re on a tight budget.
ALEXA: Amy, she also mentioned how it’s important to store food properly. This i found really interesting.
AMY: Yeah, I didn’t really know there was such a thing as storing foods improperly. Bag of chips? Chip clip. Fruit and veggies? In the refrigerator.
ALEXA: But there is a science in the way you should store your food in the fridge to make it last longer..
BETH: You want to keep the ethylene sensitive products away from the ethylene producing products.
ALEXA: Yeah, that’s exactly what I was going to say.
AMY: Ethylene is a gas released by some fruits and vegetables that causes produce to ripen faster.
ALEXA: How did you know that?
AMY: I asked Alexa.
Alexa: Oh. My Gosh.
AMY: Haha. I bet you never heard that one before.
ALEXA: Yeah, only for the past- two, three years? How long has Alexa existed? I don’t even know. Beth did describe what she meant.
BETH: A good way to think about that is usually it’s things that are green like lettuce, cucumbers those are ethylene sensitive and they will deteriorate faster and also turn yellow if they’re exposed to ethylene. Now your fruit are the ones that are producing ethylene. So in my vegetable bins I have one bin for fruits and one for vegetables.
AMY: I seriously just thought that was a way to keep the inside of the refrigerator neat and compartmentalized. Like my life.
ALEXA: Yeah well, Amy, you are pretty chill.
AMY: Or I avoid things, your call.
ALEXA: Anyways, these tips for preventing consumer waste all sound like pretty easy solutions.
AMY: Yet, we don’t do them. And Ned say if we ignore food loss and waste, we do so at our own peril.
ALEXA: Yikes. Well next time on Unfold, we won’t try to make everyone feel guilty. In fact, we want to give you some hope.
AMY: We’re going to look at how innovative technologies – including biotechnology - may change the future of food and help feed a growing population.
ALEXA: Thanks for listening.