Have you ever chuckled at the sight of suggestive appendages on carrots? How about extra limbs on parsnips? Knobby looking potatoes, gnarly peppers folded in on themselves? Misfit fruit and vegetables range from the grotesque to the bizarre — and sometimes the belly-laugh funny!
This produce is of course perfectly edible. However, something (instincts? habit? adaptation to our increasingly standardized world?) makes us select only the perfect looking apple in our supermarket Garden of Eden. And therefore, it is not just the misshapen carrot, but in fact anything that’s slightly too small or too large, or off colour, bulging or bent, or in some other way non-uniform, that is usually rejected at harvest, during distribution, or in the store, simply due to its looks. “Ugly” translates into “unsold”.
In 2015, the French supermarket chain Intermarché decided to do something about this. Dubbing the uglies “inglorious”, and giving them centre stage in a well-designed marketing campaign, merchants saw record numbers of customers flock to the stores, emptying bins and shelves within hours. This video is a fun way to get the picture!
I have seen a variety of statistics, and of course the reasons for food waste go far beyond appearances. Plus its not just fruit and vegetables getting culled, but also grain and bread, legumes and nuts, dairy, fish and meat products, and lots of processed foods — even chocolate! Generally, it is estimated that in total, up to one-third of all food produced for human consumption ends up uneaten.
Providing deeper insight, National Geographic Magazine devoted its March 2016 issue to the topic.
Clearly we do not need to waste such a large amount of food, simply because it’s unattractive, or three days away from the “best before” date. For example, we can shrug, laugh, and eat it anyway (check out the documentary Just Eat It). We can sell it for less, to people who have less money. We can give it away to people who have nothing. Last not least we can feed it to animals if it meets their needs.
However, food does spoil eventually and is no longer suitable for humans or animals to eat. And sometimes the infrastructure and communications network needed for redistribution just doesn’t come together in time. Then what? To keep truly expired produce out of the landfill, the next best thing is: Composting… or is it?
An emerging industry is working to divert unsold pre-consumer food from the waste stream and use it as feedstock for raising insects in confined systems. Raising insects? Indeed. Not for human consumption, at least not currently, but to feed livestock. The Black Soldier Fly, a completely harmless, short lived fly that naturally occurs around the world and is not a pest or nuisance, is the species of choice.
It’s pretty smart when you think about it: Instead of growing crops directly for livestock feed, unsold or unsuitable people food is given to insects who “upcycle” it, turning a waste product into value added feed products. Although each individual insect is very small, under ideal conditions they reproduce in huge numbers and at fast rates. Insect larvae and pupae especially are high in protein and fat. Whole or processed, they become a viable alternative to more conventional (and problematic) animal feed ingredients such as soybeans, fishmeal, or palm oil.
A byproduct of this new kind of farm operation is the manure left behind by all the insects. This so-called “frass”, once dried and powdered, makes for an excellent organic fertilizer. Not only does the manure provide a wide range of nutrients and microorganisms, it also contains small amounts of chitin from the animals’ exoskeletons, shed several times as they go through their life stages. Chitin promotes a plant’s natural defence mechanism against pathogens.
As organic gardeners, we are already quite comfortable with the idea of working with insects. Beyond the obvious, pollination, think about what else “bugs” have done for us lately. Flies consume stuff that few other animals will eat… functioning as a garbage crew and doing their part to close the waste-to-food loop. If it weren’t for the decomposers, from flies, and wasps and beetles, to fungi and microorganisms, the planet would be covered miles deep in poop and the dead bodies of animals and plants! So let’s shake hands with that fly and say “Thank You!”