Sunday, October 10, 2010

Scientists Suggest To Save Energy, Stop Wasting Food

In other news, the sky is blue.

Now that I have my snarky remark out of the way, I want to point out that the authors of this study are right. Especially in America, we waste an incredible amount of energy in wasting food. To quote them:
Analysis of wasted food and the energy needed to ready it for consumption concluded that the U.S. wasted about 2030 trillion BTU of energy in 2007, or the equivalent of about 350 million barrels of oil. That represents about 2 percent of annual energy consumption in the U.S.
The basic point is good. And maybe kind of obvious. To make it more useful, and help individuals and corporations develop ways to avoid the problem, I think someone needs to do a more detailed, system-wide, analysis of food production, consumption, and efficiency. I would argue that loss is both in the production of food which is then wasted - when someone's ham sandwich sits out of the refrigerator for too long, and gets thrown out. But also in product packaging. Product packaging is a huge investment of energy to produce, and a huge problem in landfills. While we frequently complain about the amount of waste produced in packaging, it's also the packaging that frequently keeps food from spoiling and getting wasted. We need better packaging, more efficient packaging, and less packing waste.

Health nuts and environmentalists shop at places like Whole Foods, where they buy dry goods in bulk, which they keep in their own re-usable, and often highly effective containers. This kind of conscientious use of food, packaging, and storage is great for those who have the time, money, and willingness to invest. But the people who do that are clearly a small portion of the population over all. I make this effort, but sometimes it turns out to be too expensive. Though I don't see a reason why it should be. I'm fairly certain it's just the fact that Whole Foods (and other stores like it) have especially high mark-up.

Ineffective or inefficient packaging is actually one of the food industries ways of trying to ensure that you will purchase their product more often. Whether the food and packaging gets wasted is really not their problem. Cereals could easily change their packaging to add a zip-loc type of closure to the cereal bag inside the box. This would ensure your corn flakes would last longer without getting stale. It might also mean you'd be slower to consume them, or less likely to throw out stale corn flakes, and buy a new box. It goes against what the manufacturers want you to do, which is consume more, no matter how much gets wasted. Corn flakes are just one obvious example, but the problem is pervasive. Either in excessive packaging - in "serving size" containers, or poor packaging which lets the product spoil more quickly, the food and packaging industries need a kick in the pants. I'm not sure if the answer is regulation, or changing consumer demand. I suspect both would help.

The problem of food storage and food spoilage is a problem as old as humanity, though it became more of of a problem with settled village life. Being an archaeologist, I can't help but think about this question, and how it's been solved over the millennia. These days it's hard to imagine a life without plastics. What would you do without your tupperware, your zip-loc bags and containers? What would you do without a refrigerator?

View of the Settlement area of the Early Historic and Early Medieval Periods at Kadebakele, Karnataka.

Archaeologists have been studying food storage practices and technology around the world for a long time now, and there are several techniques that were pretty much universal across cultures around the world. The problem of food storage really only came along when people started producing (or collecting) surplus. Without having more than you need on a given day or at a given time, you wouldn't have the problem of storing it. But once you start making more than you need on a given day, or even for a given year, you have to find a way to store it. Here are some of the solutions that people have used across the world in the past 10,000 years.
  1. Pottery. Ceramic vessels appear pretty much everywhere around the world, especially once people started to settle down in villages and farm. Ceramics are not very efficient for nomadic life, but they work great if you stay in one place. They can be used to store liquids and dry goods. They can keep out pests - at least rodents, if not always insects. They can be made to various sizes and shape specifications, and compared with older technologies of containers - they can be more durable. Prior to pottery, it appears people used organic materials, such as baskets, possibly cloth and leather bags, and gourds. These materials have another set of benefits, as well as drawbacks.

    A large storage vessel excavated at the Danish Fort of Tranquebar.

  2. Storage pits. These features of archaeological sites are also ubiquitous, and sometimes mystifying. It's hard to imagine digging a hole in the dirt, and wanting to keep your food in a hole in the ground. But storage pits often provided a natural source of cooling, as well as potentially saving space compared with above-ground storage of goods. Storage pits also frequently were inside dwellings. Archaeologists often interpret this to mean that people wanted to protect their private ownership over the food which they had produced, making it difficult for other people to get to.

    Part of a large round storage pit, early centuries BC/AD, Kadebakele, Karnataka

  3. Storage bins, granaries and public storage. In contrast with the private storage pit inside a home, archaeologists have uncovered large buildings they interpret as granaries or public storage for grain. They have variously been interpreted as state controlled centers which would function by taxation paid in grain, and as grain savings banks. A public depository, which you could come and withdraw from later. In Mesopotamia the temples often took grain as part of donations, gifts or offerings, and then used that grain to support the labor of various other kinds of producers who lived in and were attached to the temples. The collection of surplus grain which supports other kinds of non-food production and activities is the basis of a specialized economy. It allows for monumental constructions, works of art, and military conquest.

  4. Livestock. Live animals are a great form of storage. As long as the animal is alive, it is its own machine of creating and storing food energy. To the extent that an animal ages, and will someday die naturally, it "spoils" very slowly. Keeping the goat alive until you want to eat mutton is a great way to prevent the meat from going bad. You can also feed animals with surplus grain, agricultural bi-products like hay, and benefit from their secondary products like milk, or wool. Keeping livestock - and keeping it alive, has always been an effective and efficient way of keeping food from spoiling.

    A man holding a newborn goat up to its mother to suckle. It's still too weak to stand.

  5. Pickles. I've never been a huge fan of pickles myself, but they are an age-old solution to the problem of vegetables and meat spoiling. What to do with all that extra cabbage? Sauerkraut. What to do with an abundance of cucumbers? Dill pickles, sweet pickles, any sort of pickles. One thing you'll need: lots of salt. And also, you'll need vinegar - which comes as a byproduct of number 7, below.

  6. Drying. Drying only works really well in certain kinds of climates, but it can be made to work even in the tropics. You can dry fruit (who doesn't love a fruit roll-up), or fish, or meat. Jerky, which is sold today in silly plastic packaging near the checkout counter at the 7-11 is actually an ancient technological solution. Even before or without agriculture, people all across the world have dried the excess meat from animals - especially hunting migratory animals that you can only hunt and kill in one season. Buffalo jerky on the high plains, caribou jerky in the arctic and sub-arctic, mammoth jerky in Ice Age Europe. Dried foods lose their water weight, are easier to transport, and don't spoil nearly as quickly. Fruits and nuts have also been important items of trade in the ancient world. Dates, apricots, pistachios, cashews, all were products of different regions of the Mediterranean and Near East. They were shipped all over the world.

  7. Fermentation. Grain, fruit, milk, almost any food product, given enough time will start to ferment or break down. The process is usually catalyzed by various agents, some of which are naturally present in the food itself. Food, especially the plant food we eat, is actually meant to be food for the plant itself. It's a way for the plant to store energy, usually to feed its offspring in the form of seeds. A peach is tasty to a person, but the fruit sugars and flesh are actually meant to nourish the seed, the pit in the middle which may become another peach tree. Built into the fruit are enzymes which naturally cause the fruit to ripen, a process which breaks down the sugars, and ultimately becomes rotting. Add to that various bacteria, yeasts, and fungi, and you have a million ways in which food will naturally break down. Instead of letting fruits and grains break down in the way that they would if left to themselves, humans learned to control the processes of fermentation to make beer, liquor, wine, and cheese. Controlled fermentation is a great way to take something that's going to spoil anyway, and cause it to ferment in a way that produces a product which itself will keep longer, store useful calories, and be mighty tasty in the process.
  8. Host big parties. What archaeologists call feasts, (or more high-falutin' term "salient consumption") is a great solution to having a lot of surplus. If you happen to have a lot of extra food, you can always throw a big party, (preferably utilizing some of the above-mentioned wine or beer), and distribute that surplus, making sure it gets eaten and consumed before it goes to waste. The principle is one of "pay-it-forward" altruism. It pays to throw big parties, and invite the whole community. This year you might be the one with surplus, and you might help someone else who's crops didn't do so well. Next year, when your yields are not as great, (or in the modern world, you're unemployed) your neighbor can throw a party, where you can come and stuff your face. Everyone benefits, and less food gets wasted overall.
    (I considered posting a picture of some friends at a party, but decided it might be too embarrassing/incriminating... so just make a mental picture, ok, people?)

  9. Get fat. This is actually the evolutionary solution to times of excess and times of scarcity. When humans (and other animals) lived without as much control over their environment, and without the ability to produce surplus, we evolved to store the excess when it was available, and keep it for later, when resources were scarce. You can probably be assured that our hominid ancestors never got truly obese. But they did utilize fat storage as a way to make it through lean seasons. Unfortunately, (or fortunately, depending on how you see it) in the modern and developed world, most people never experience the scarcity. They only ever experience surplus, and the system is no longer really adaptive for modern conditions and habits. (Disclaimer: I'm not in any way endorsing getting fat. I'm simply pointing out that is one of the ways in which humans have dealt with surplus food in the past.)

  10. Don't produce as much surplus. This also may fall under the category of "the sky is blue", but it's worth mentioning. If you can't keep surplus without it going to waste, and you can't dry it, pickle it, ferment it, feed it to livestock, or share it with your neighbors, maybe you shouldn't produce that much excess. As the authors of this contemporary study pointed out, energy is wasted in making more than you can or will actually use. So whether that energy is your own sweat, out in the fields, tilling more land, and producing more zucchini than you can possibly ever use, or distribute, or whether that energy is in the electricity and petroleum products used by factories to make cornflakes which will go stale and wind up in the garbage, we should work on calibrating our production to our actual consumption needs.

After my top ten list of ways humans have dealt with surplus, and found ways to avoid waste, I want to add two points. One is that, given all the resources we have now, and the number of people in the world who still go hungry, I see no reason why we can't practice some of that pay-it-forward altruism, and give away the surplus. I don't see any reason why there should be any waste at all. India recently went through a scandal, in which grain was rotting in government store houses, and poor people were starving on the streets. With enough public outcry, the government was forced to distribute some of that grain. Clearly, hunger in the world today isn't a problem of actual shortage or scarcity. It's a problem of distribution.

My second point is more of a musing. In thinking about all the foods which are fermented, I realized that some of my favorite foods in the world are fermented products. Good beer and wine are wonderful things. So is cheese. Oh, I miss cheese so much. It's also interesting that fermentation is a process which some kinds of primates also appreciate. Remember the youtube video of monkeys getting drunk on the beach? There are also monkeys that wait for fruit to ferment on the tree before eating it. They delay gratification and wait long enough for the fruit to become fruit liquor. They don't control the process, per se, but it's interesting to think that fermented foods might be evolutionarily older than the human species.

If we can't figure out a way to send surplus grain to starving people around the world, maybe we can ship them some beer instead? Ok, I hope everyone gets that that was sarcasm. But seriously, lets figure out a way to solve the problems of waste, surplus, and starvation, all together.
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one
- John Lennon