Feed The Future
In the documentary, Dirt! The Movie, narrator Jamie Lee Curtis states, “The process that turns garbage into a garden is central to our survival. We depend on [soil] to purify and heal the systems that sustain us.” It has also been suggested, “harvesting food waste as a reusable resource is the next frontier in recycling.” Harvesting food waste means recovering it. Recycling food waste means composting it. “Compost is more than a fertilizer or a healing agent for the soil’s wounds. It is a symbol of continuing life.”
Paradoxically, given nearly 150 years of repeated calls for recovering nutrients in discarded organic materials, composting has still not become the norm for our nation. According to the US EPA, in 2015, Americans generated over 500 billion pounds of municipal solid waste.
Of that amount, only 46 billion pounds (9%) were composted despite the fact that over 300 billion pounds (62%) were materials such as paper and paperboard (27%), food (15%) yard trimmings (13%), and wood (6%), all of which are compostable. The 15% figure for food in the waste stream reveals that Americans generated about 75 billion pounds of discarded food in 2015. The amount of food recovered for composting was less than 4 billion pounds (5%).
This means that approximately 95% (71 billion pounds) of all of the discarded food generated in the United States was either buried in a landfill or burned in an incinerator. These 73 billion pounds should have been converted into compost!
Recent research has suggested, “Clearly, the world faces a looming and growing agricultural crisis. Yields are not improving fast enough to keep up with projected demands in 2050.” The United Nations has proposed as soon as in 2030, food production will need to increase by at least 50% in order to feed adequately the growing population of humans. Alarming research has found that nearly 39 million square miles out of 250 million square miles (15%) of the total land area of Earth has experienced soil degradation. An area larger than the size of the entire United States has soil that has somewhat reduced agricultural suitability. An area the size of mainland China has soil that has greatly reduced agricultural productivity. An area larger than Alaska, Texas, and California combined has soil that is not reclaimable at farm level. And an area the size of Indiana has soil that is irreclaimable and beyond restoration. When the realities of peak oil and peak phosphorus are considered, the situation becomes even more alarming.
The concept of the importance of soil to the sustainability of humanity is not new. Over one century ago it was suggested, “The [soil] is the great fundamental resource of the nation, the [soil] is indeed more important than all other resources. From the [soil] comes our food and clothing; food and clothing, we must have; all of our other needs are subordinate to these. The productivity of the [soil] is therefore the basal factor which will control in the future the density of our population.” Nearly 20 years earlier, Andrew Sloan Draper, President of the University of Illinois, opined, “The wealth of Illinois is in her soil, and her strength lies in its intelligent development.” Illinois may, perhaps must, be replaced with America, because the United States has some of the richest and most abundant topsoil in the world.
So, one of the major questions for sustainability is: if the human population is still growing exponentially and is projected to increase by “almost one billion…reaching 8.1 billion in 2025” while the amount of land that we have available to grow food is decreasing—nearly 23 million acres since 2003—and the fertility of the remaining soil is decreasing, how are we going to feed future generations? How are we going to ensure equity, fairness, and justice insofar as food is concerned? The oceans were once thought to be the source of an endless supply of food for humanity. That thought is now seriously questioned by new research that suggests that the bounty of the oceans will be exhausted by 2048 if current fisheries practices remain unchanged. One answer is to instigate a sociological imagination with a vision where rich and fertile soil is abundant, where it is sustained by the continual replacement of vital nutrients from uneaten food that has been converted into compost in a biologically and economically efficient manner. A vision where all food that came from the Earth is returned to the Earth if it is not eaten: a closed cycle where there is no beginning and, more important, no end. A vision of sustainable humanity where hunger as a noun ceases to exist because waste as a noun insofar as food is concerned has also ceased to exist.
So why are all of the uneaten food generated in the United States not recovered and composted and why is this nutrient-dense compost not being used to revitalize our soils and improve our ability to grow enough food to sustain a well-nourished population? Part of the reason why Americans have not embraced a sociological imagination that has been espoused for over one century may have to do with our vocabulary. For example, the word waste has both a noun and verb form. Waste as a noun is commonly defined as something that has no value or is useless and undesirable. Synonyms include garbage, refuse, and trash. This is problematic because it violates a generally accepted proposed second law of ecology, namely “…in nature there is no such thing as ‘waste’.” “The classification of items as ‘waste’, and thereby dealt with by some sort of disposal, leads to their becoming ‘out of sight, out of mind’ – culturally invisible.” Because of the out of sight, out of mind mentality, “the now ubiquitous landfill spread it infectious new gospel…across the land.” That which is perceived as waste “is managed as waste…and that which is [perceived] as waste is managed.” That which is perceived as a replishable natural resource is often, although not always, protected, preserved, and conserved! Uneaten food is a replenishable natural resource that when composted is the best option for restoring the vitality of soil.
There is an axiom that has been used commonly for decades in the sustainability movement: think globally act locally. While this seems like a defensible idea, making the words reality often proves difficult. “What is needed is a highly decentralized and diverse organics recovery infrastructure that first prioritizes food rescue” and local on-site food composting systems with local food production. The 1,500 miles from farm to plate model is simply not sustainable! It is also not sustainable to transport food scores of miles or farther to compost it. Aerobic in-vessel rotary drum composting technology makes it possible to compost uneaten food very near where it is generated. Abandoned lots and rooftop gardens provide abundant opportunities for local food production. Detroit, for example, has 40 square miles of abandoned lots. Philadelphia has about 10 square miles of them. Think about how much food could be grown on that much land! Think about how entire cities may be transformed from food deserts plagued with poverty and malnourishment to food oases with sufficiency and health.
With all due respect to Rachel Carson, it is ironic to think that humanity might determine its own future by something so seemingly trivial as the choice to recover and compost food scraps locally in order to feed the future!