OPINION: Unsustainable food waste practices doomed to fail

(Illustration by Savannah Thaemert | The Collegian)

It is a common practice in our society nowadays to see people throw their leftover food in the trash. Is this a foolish practice that we may regret in the future? How could we possibly know? The methods of science can allow us to think critically and discover the consequences of many of our actions before we let problems get out of control like they have many times in our history.

Our local culture has been greatly affected by the ecological response to the American settlers’ plowing and tilling of the Great Plains. The Dust Bowl was a disastrous event that clearly showed that what was considered standard practice at the time significantly reduced the fertility of the land by eroding much of the topsoil away. The top layer of the soil is the most fertile part with the highest amount of organic matter and diversity of life. Our yields on our farms would be much higher now had we not tilled the Great Plains so much.

Food waste is a very serious issue that has recently been getting more national attention. On Sept. 16, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced a goal to cut the amount of food that Americans waste by 50 percent by 2030.

This is extremely vital, because according to the Natural Resources Defense Council’s 2012 Issue Paper, “Getting food from the farm to our fork eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and swallows 80 percent of all freshwater consumed in the United States. Yet, 40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten … Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year, … uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills as the single largest component of U.S. municipal solid waste where it accounts for a large portion of U.S. methane emissions. Reducing food losses by just 15 percent would be enough food to feed more than 25 million Americans every year at a time when one in six Americans lack a secure supply of food to their tables.”

It is a shame to let the energy and resources that went into creating our food products get wasted and not provide nutrition for people. It is an even bigger shame to then ship the food to the landfill and seal up the valuable nutrients along with the rest of our trash.

Food decomposes very slowly and without oxygen in the landfill, releasing methane over time. Methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas that can also be used for fuel if it is captured and stored. Landfill operators will do an economic analysis to see if the money they can make from capturing the methane will be worth the cost of installing the equipment necessary to capture the leaking methane. If it will not be profitable, we let the methane leak into the atmosphere instead of using it to power our societies.

But it’s not just that. According to the Washington Post, “The environmental cost of food waste goes further than just methane emissions. Producing food is a costly affair for the environment—an estimated one-third of global carbon emissions come from agriculture—but it’s one society pays to feed itself.” We simply can’t afford such large waste from this huge source of environmental stress.

Sending the food to the landfills also disrupts the nutrient cycles of our planet that we rely on for our survival. Most kids learn in school that plants photosynthesize by absorbing carbon dioxide in through the leaves, pulling nutrients along with water from the soil through the roots and using the energy of the sunlight to create sugars and other complex molecules from these essential components. The plants get all of their nutrients except carbon from the soil and each unique plant species absorbs the nutrients differently. In nature, the plants decompose locally and return their nutrients back to the soil.

Humans, however, have disrupted these nutrient cycles as we have urbanized unwisely and struggled to find the best way to make our food system secure and profitable. We are pulling the nutrients from the soil of our best agricultural fields just to eventually ship a large fraction of them to landfills.

Nature’s way of recycling nutrients locally has been destroyed. If we teach kids the basics of how plants work in our schools, why have the adults in our society not applied this knowledge and seriously worked to eliminated these problems in our food system? How long will we continue to send food to the landfills and consider this a normal practice?

The finished compost made from food waste replenishes some of the organic matter, fertility, and biodiversity of the soil that was lost through destructive practices such as those that caused the Dust Bowl. We look back on the excessive tillage and inattention to erosion and wonder why we did not know better before it was too late.

Our societies should not constantly be extracting nutrients from the soil through agriculture, allowing almost half to go to landfills, and then trying to replace the nutrients through synthetic fertilizers. This unsustainable strategy is doomed to fail. We must fix the nutrient cycles in our local communities by sending our food waste back into the soil instead of to the landfills, and make this common knowledge that everyone actually practices. This is the only way to long term food security.

To really affect this issue positively, we all must learn more, think critically and take every opportunity we can to keep food waste out of the dumpster. As students, we should push to institutionalize composting at the new K-State Student Union food court and at our athletic events. Ideally, our society should distribute unspoiled food to those who need it in our community and compost all other organic waste for use in local gardens. This will be a big transition for many organizations and many people, but we need to start as soon as we can.

By solving food waste issues all over our communities, we can make it so that future generations are thankful that we made our common practices align with what we should do to work with nature. Just like I wish that previous generations didn’t foolishly till the Great Plains until the prime soil was swept away in the wind, I hope that our children will not wish that we hadn’t swept the nutrients to the landfills instead of returning them in the soil to sustain our societies long into the future.