Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Reducing food waste

A recent NY Times article came out about the war against food waste. The statistics about the amount of food that's thrown out uneaten is astounding - quoting from the article

According to the most recent available statistics, more than 30 million tons of food was dumped in landfills in 2009, making food by far the most abundant material there by weight, the federal Environmental Protection Agency says. (That calculation excludes industrial, construction and hazardous waste.) This amounts roughly to 200 pounds a year for every man, woman and child in the United States.

What people don't realize is that much more than just food is wasted when food's thrown away. There are an enormous amount of resources that go into getting the food "from paddock to plate", including picking, processing, storage, transportation, and refrigeration. It's estimated that for every 1 ton of food wasted, 3.8 tons of CO2 equivalent emissions are generated. Reducing the amount of food wasted is an easy way to reduce the carbon footprint.

Supermarkets are a big culprit in generating this food waste. Perfectly good food gets thrown out because of food labeling changes, excess stock, marginally damaged products, slight label inaccuracies, outdated packaging, discontinued products, and expired shelf life. Some people have taken to the "freegan" movement and go dumpster diving for the still-good food thrown out by supermarkets. Before the reader gets too disgusted by this idea, freegan divers take precautions such as wearing rubber gloves, choosing well lit sites, taking items that are packaged, and thoroughly washing fruit and vegetables. I have never personally been dumpster diving, but it has definite appeal, from waste reduction to free food with a tinge of adventure.

Another (slightly less disgusting) way to make the most of food left out is to go foraging for fruit on vacant property. The NY Times article describes several fruit foraging organizations and leaders, who scout out vacant or foreclosed lots with fruit trees to pick the ripened fruit for themselves or charity. One forager, Anna Chan of Clayton, California, is known as the Lemon Lady. Three years ago, she started collecting fruit and donating them to food banks, local farms and grocery store produce departments - since then, she and other volunteers have delivered up over 250 tons of food to the hungry. It's a great way to make the most of what's available, I think. Despite the legal grey area of who owns the property, I think it makes more sense for people to pick the fruit when it's ripening and give it to those who need it than the bank to claim the land and then let everything go to waste.

What wasted food boils down to the end is that people need to be more conscious about what's wasted. It's not just the food itself, but the time and resources needed to produce that food. When food is thrown out, it's contributing a lot of extra, unnecessary CO2 and it's diverting resources away from people who need it. With so many complicated environmental problems out there, this is one that can be easily resolved, so why not start now?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Peru, indigenous communities, and going back to traditions

Dealing with climate change with ancient traditions: Peru is going back to farming traditions that indigenous people living there centuries ago. This includes planting crops that are adapted to the land, temperature, and weather, such as the huaƱa pink potato which lasts 4 times longer than normal potatoes in storage and which can resist frost, hail, extreme rain and drought. Peruvian farmers are also looking into different techniques of farming, such as level terraces on the mountains and hillsides. It's very promising that organizations are now looking into local traditions that have persisted through the years as a way to combat climate change. While not all traditions are equally efficient or relevant now, there are many benefits from learning from the past, especially if they are traditions that had been honed for that particular environment over many years. Jared Diamond writes of successful (and unsuccessful) societies from the past and present in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, including examples of farming methodology and government structure that may be worthwhile to explore now.

In another article about Peru, Peru is now one of the leading Latin American countries for indigenous communities rights. A new law recognizing land ownership rights has now come into effect, which can help reduce social conflict between locals and companies interested in mining, logging, or other resource extraction. It'll be seen whether the government takes the consultation of such indigenous leaders into consideration when making decisions, as some countries make decisions contrary to the wishes of their indigenous communities despite having consulted them.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The good of community gardens

This article here on community greening is an issue that those involved in community gardening and open space advocating come across often – having to describe the benefits of community gardening. Having just written a review section on urban agriculture in the US and Canada, I wanted to share with you some of the key points I found.

There are a number of benefits from community gardens which fall under three main themes: urban agriculture, community development, and open spaces.

Urban agriculture: One of the crises faced by inner city residents is the food desert and lack of access to fresh healthy produce. This food insecurity problem can be addressed through community gardens in the city itself – vacant lots can be turned into garden plots and its harvest distributed to the neighborhood. The gardens can be owned by municipalities, community organizations, schools, land trusts, or even private owners. This local cultivation of one’s own food comes along with better food security, improvements in nutrition by eating fresh produce, reduced need for food transportation, and less money spent on groceries. Learning to plant and eat with the seasons can bring in a lot of educational opportunities as well. Organizations like Just Food in New York City focuses on developing a sustainable food system including partnerships with community gardens and community supported agriculture (CSA) farms.

Community development: Besides the direct impact on food security, getting a group of people together for a common cause, in this case growing greens, opens up many opportunities for community development. A sense of belonging is cultivated by the members and gardeners who tend the plot as well as a sense of neighborhood. Growing one’s own food, making decisions in what goes into the garden, and becoming self reliant is also hugely empowering, especially for new immigrants or low income people who might not feel as comfortable in formal parks. Relationships can be built across generations, cultures, ethnicities, and socioeconomic classes through working and playing together in these spaces and certainly it can contribute to reduction of crime and drug use. Some who get involved in gardening find that it helps them reconnect to their cultural or ethnic identity by the types of fruits and vegetables grown. Such empowerment and community participation very much strengthens the community as a whole.

For the especially productive gardens, they can become starting points for teaching entrepreneurship. Food from the 'Hood in South Central Los Angeles was created in October 1992 in response to the race riots and has become a nationally acclaimed program for empowering youth through entrepreneurial training. Students grew fruit and vegetables in an empty lot behind the Crenshaw High football field and developed their own line of salad dressing. Proceeds went to donation and scholarships to student managers; to date, over $250,000 in scholarships has been generated.

Open spaces: The garden itself can be a space for social, cultural, and educational activities. A study by Saldivar-Tanaka and Krasny (2004) on Latino community gardens in New York found that these spaces were used as places for family gatherings, parties, holidays, workshops, school group tours, and educational courses. For residents and families that may not be able to afford visiting public parks or personal backyards, having a green communal area is an inexpensive way to gather and relax. In addition, having a green space contributes to city beautification, improvements in environmental health through ameliorating air pollution and the urban heat effect, and positive reflections of the community identity. It’s a great opportunity for residents to participate and show their culture, creativity, and aesthetics through the plants and structures.

Today, the American Community Gardening Association estimates there are over 18,000 community gardens in the US and Canada, ranging from neighborhood gardens to public housing gardens and school gardens (Kortright and Wakefield, 2011). I think that it’s a great way to reconnect with nature and the community. If you’re interested in starting your own community garden, check out the resources below or contact the People’s Garden Initiative with the US Department of Agriculture to locate your nearest community garden.


  • American Community Gardening Association
  • The Urban Agriculture Network
  • Community Food Security Coalition
  • City Farmer
  • FoodShare Toronto


    Brown KH, Carter A (2003). Urban agriculture and community food security in the United States: farming from the city center to the urban fringe. Community Food Security Coalition, North American Urban Agriculture Committee.

    Kortright R, Wakefield S (2011). Edible backyards: a qualitative study of household food growing and its contributions to food security. Agricultural and Human Values, 28:39-53

    Saldivar-Tanaka L, Krasny ME (2004). Culturing community development, neighborhood open space, and civic agriculture: The case of Latino community gardens. Agriculture and Human Values, 21:399-412
  • Friday, September 2, 2011

    DPI Climate Dogs

    The Australian Department of Primary Industries made these really cute, but informative videos about the interactions of El Nino and La Nina affecting the weather patterns in Australia. They're one of the reasons why Melbourne had a cold and rainy year. Check them out! More information can be found here at the DPI website