The problem may seem immense, but there are many good solutions.
Anthony Bourdain wants you to "use everything, waste nothing." The celebrity chef is the voice behind a new documentary film called "Wasted! The Story of Food Waste," released in October. The film delves into what it calls one of the greatest problems of the 21st century -- "the criminality of food waste and how it's directly contributing to climate change."
The film starts with the Environmental Protection Agency's food waste pyramid, which explains the ideal order in which food should be used: 1) to feed people, 2) feed livestock, 3) generate energy, 4) create nutrient-rich soil, and 5) go to landfill. It explores each of these topics in greater depth, using several well-known chefs as guides.
While feeding people is every chef's job, Dan Barber is the one who features most prominently in the conversation about how to use ingredients more efficiently. Barber's famous restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, sits on a beautiful farm that provides ingredients for his kitchen. Barber takes issue with the fact that "nose to tail" cooking is highly regarded when it comes to meat, and yet the concept rarely applies to vegetables. Take a cauliflower, for example. In terms of biomass, 40 percent is the cauliflower itself, while 60 percent is leaves and stalk, a.k.a. waste. "Why wouldn't we utilize the entirety of a landscape the way we do for a carcass?" he asks. This question is particularly relevant in a country where one in 5 kids is hungry.
The idea of feeding leftover food to animals is intriguing. This is why many households kept pigs and chickens in the past, as it makes sense to transform inedible food into edible food. Unfortunately we've moved away from this, and now feed 70 percent of the world's grain to animals. If we returned to the old way of doing things and fed food waste to livestock, we could liberate enough grain to feed 3 billion people.
To explore this, chef Danny Bowien goes to Japan, where pigs are fed an ingenious slop called Eco-Feed. It is rich in lactobacillus bacteria, which eliminates the need for antibiotics, and farmers save 50 percent of the cost of regular feed. The quality of the meat is superior, too.
Food waste could create tremendous amounts of energy for humanity, if only we embraced its potential. Some companies, such as Yoplait in Tennessee, have figured this out, transforming whey, a byproduct of the yogurt industry, into electricity through anaerobic digestion. So far this conversion saves the company $2.4 million/year. As one company representative says, "You're taking a product that nobody wants and turning it into a product that everyone needs."
Composting is another age-old practice that desperately needs revitalization in this day and age. For this, "Wasted" went to New Orleans, where a school gardening program teaches kids how to turn their food scraps into nutrient-rich soil. This knowledge, together with gardening, has the added benefit of improving kids' diets. As chef Mario Batali points out, it makes kids willing to eat food if they've helped to grow it. And knowing the energy and hard work that goes into producing food makes people disinclined to waste it.
Landfill is a place where food should never go, but, tragically, that's where 90 percent of America's food waste does end up. You may be shocked to learn that, in the absence of oxygen, it takes a head of lettuce 25 years to biodegrade in a landfill. While breaking down, food waste produces methane, which is a greenhouse gas 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.
Some countries take this problem very seriously. South Korea has introduced laws that force households to weigh their trash and pay a monthly fee based on how much they're throwing away. This has reduced food waste in landfill by 30 percent since 2013. These measures show that change is possible, but first we need to change the culture surrounding food waste and make it feel wrong, rather than accepted.
What can a person do? The sentiments of all chefs and food waste experts on the film seem to align: Eat real food. Care about food. Learn how to cook (and eat leftovers). Be an active citizen. Speak out to the supermarkets, which author and activist Tristram Stuart describes as "the apex of power in our food system", capable of solving a lot of the world's food waste problems overnight, if only they wanted to.
The wonderful thing about food waste is that it's accessible to all. It doesn't matter where you live or how much you earn. You can reduce your household food waste -- and it will make a difference.
In Bourdain's words:
"Why should you care? [Because] we are in a position to do something. It will have a tangible, beneficial effect on the planet, so it's not a lot to ask."
Learn more about Wasted! here.