“BLT Sandwich on Toast” By Steven Groves from Denver, CO, United States of America (Sammie) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

February 14, 2017; NYC Food Policy Center at Hunter College

Believe it or not, a carrot top is fit for consumption! No, not the loopy orange-tressed late-night-show regular and Las Vegas headliner, but rather the leafy-green pompadour atop every carrot when it is rooted from the ground, according to sustainability advocate Jeremy Kranowitz, currently an affiliate with the Keystone Policy Center, who wrote “Down the Rabbit Hole: Why Measuring Food Waste Is So Confusing” for the New York Food Policy Center.

Kranowitz recognizes that the majority of American consumers, restaurants, and grocery vendors don’t think twice about lopping off and discarding the heads of their carrots. However, they are quite useful in cuisine when prepared right, and he uses this as an example of the many common sources of America’s unconscious food waste that can be easily remedied.

“Even though the carrot tops are bitter when raw,” Kranowitz writes, “they can be sautéed like other leafy greens, or put into soups, imparting a taste somewhere between parsley and carrots, and they are rich in vitamin C, potassium and calcium.” Kranowitz encourages consumers to experiment with other fruit and vegetable parts as one of many easy means to reduce food waste.

Kranowitz, in his article for the New York City Food Policy Center at Hunter College, argues that food waste reduction can’t get off the ground because there is no standard measurement of the amount of food waste in the United States, and not even a standard word to discuss it. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses the term “waste,” he notes, to refer to good food that does not get eaten after consumers purchase it. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses the term “loss” to refer to food that is deemed ruined (spilled, spoiled, bruised, wilted, or otherwise not deemed saleable or consumable) before it reaches the intended consumer.

And just as you can’t trust a fisherman to truthfully describe the size of his catch without the evidence in hand, major organizations dealing with food issues have widely disparate estimates of food waste in the United States. The Environmental Protection Agency says 38.4 million tons; ReFED, a research and advocacy group fighting food waste, comprised of nonprofit, business and government leaders, calls it 62.5 million. The USDA (66.5 million) and the National Resource Defense Council (86 million) have different agendas and use different tools to gauge the inefficient use of food. Our calculations put the average of these estimates at 66.35 million metric tons of food waste per year, but any way you slice it, even the lowest of these estimates stands as an offense against nature. One can view this as an economic issue, a moral one, or both.

Kranowitz talks up pollution as another harmful effect of food waste. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Kranowitz notes, states that food that is not eaten emits 3.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, positing nutritional waste as one of the world’s biggest sources of greenhouse gases. Compare this to famously pensive ruminants like cows, which do not waste or lose anything in the human sense. Through the methane produced by doing their business, they are also culpable critters, if unwitting and incapable of consciously curbing their behavior. Timeforchange.org states that the 1.5 billion cows and bulls of the world release approximately “two billion metric tons of CO2-equivalents per year.” This is a bit less than two-thirds that of forlorn food produced for human consumption. However, the bovine population doesn’t monetize food as a fungible commodity, as people do, preventing a universally adequate food supply when there is more than enough production to allow adequate nutrition for all.

While the EPA and USDA approach this epic problem from two different perspectives, fumbling with the keys of the solution in their pockets, they are together trying to do something, having come to the table in 2015 to pronounce a lofty goal of reducing food waste and loss by 2030.

Not everyone is lamenting the cross-purposes of this Tower of Babel-like conundrum. Kranowitz cites Elise Golan, Director for Sustainable Development, Office of the Chief Economist at USDA, who believes that the multiple measures result in a more broad and holistic coverage of food waste, and that trends in the same direction among them have added value. “If we see change in the same direction using different measures,” she posits, “we will have greater confidence that we have measured something meaningful.”

Kranowitz is writing about data-supported ideas and not putting forth much controversy in this article, but rather may be successful in his life’s work in raising awareness of the tragic phenomenon. However, he doesn’t believe persons or organizations are trying to waste food, quipping, “Luckily, there isn’t a pro-food waste lobbying group (other than maybe the waste haulers).” That is likely not true at all, as the promotion of food waste serves the mercantile interests of many businesses, and the subversive message to consumers to manage their food purchase and consumption cavalierly is executed in several subtle ways. Restaurants have lately been reeling in diners with outsized and unhealthy portions that are fit for three or four kings. In 2013, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute published an article lamenting the deleterious effects on health from increasing portion sizes in America over the last twenty years, stating, “Food portions in America’s restaurants have doubled or tripled over the last 20 years, a key factor that is contributing to a potentially devastating increase in obesity among children and adults.”

American culture in all aspects is about growth, and the perpetual need for economic growth in all industries has led to the creation of consumer habits that lead to the obscene waste of food. No public service effort is going to make much of a dent in this perverse squandering of the fruits of the Earth until fundamental changes are made in foundational American ideals and behaviors.—Louis Altman