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Preserving food to reduce waste

The UN FAO reminds us of the sheer scope of world food waste - 1/3 of all the food produced, most of it produce, goes to waste. While we'll never get food waste to zero, this is a scandal in a world worrying about how it will feed itself.

This is not news - the statistics have been similar for a while now. But when it penetrates, it does give people a sense of the scope of the wastage problem. That pasta with broccoli rabe molding in your fridge is really a link to a larger world and cultural problem.

The Global North and South both waste similar portions of the food they produce, but there is a significant difference between them - the majority of the wastage in the global south comes from lack of ability to preserve food - no refrigeration, no easy way to preserve it on a large scale, and limited market access or long times from harvest to market. That is, most food lost in the Global South is lost because of technological limits and poverty. There are strategies that can be used for remediation there - building appropriate technology for preservation, teaching new preservation methods, small applications of money and energy that can make a big difference to some of the poorest people in the world - rural farmers in the Global South.

If they can get more of their crop to market in some form, or preserve it for later use, that in turn both makes more food available to their communities and also gives them the income or food to improve their own situation.

In the Global North, the picture is different. We do lose food at harvest, but the majority of all food loss is household and market - supermarkets throwing out lightly dinged cans and crates of produce, households buying food and burying it in the back of their refrigerators - this is the picture of food waste in the Global North. It is worth noticing that specifically speaking, larger quantities of wealth and technology make absolutely no difference in total food wastage - the difference is that we run energy hungry refrigerators and process food into cans *before* we throw it out - investing 20 times more energy in our food before we put it in the trash. Talk about resources down the drain. The average American wastes nearly 800 dollars in food per year - that's a lot of money down the drain as well.

What does all this have to do with food preservation? Well, there are some obvious tools to reduce world food waste, and some not-so-obvious tools. Some of the obvious ones involve making better use of the food you do have, using food scraps for compost and to raise livestock in populated areas (converting waste into fertility and more food), building networks to distribute perfectly good food, encouraging freegans and dumpster divers, and simply doing more sharing - if you can't eat that CSA share, instead of letting it rot, give it away!

One of the less obvious available strategies for us in the Global North, however, is small scale home food preservation. As more and more of us look locally for food, we have more power to reduce both food waste, and the energy used in the food system before we waste. Buying in bulk, preserving what is abundant and cheap at the market, in our garden or in excess in the wild (many invasive plants are delicious), and using methods of food preservation to reduce home food waste can make a significant difference in the overall picture. Just as your pasta molding in the fridge is a link to a much vaster cultural problem, the fruit leather from overripe fruit about to go moldy is a link in the chain that begins to address this fundamental problem.

How do you use food preservation to reduce waste? Well, in an emergency - which might be a power outage when everything in your freezer is vulnerable or a hard frost you weren't prepared for that threatens the tomato crop, you can get out your solar dehydrator, your canning jars, your salt, the root cellar, and protect that food from loss. With a CSA share or a relationship with local farmers, you can get access to cheap food - not industrial cheap food, but the food they have that is so abundant that there are discounts for bulk purchase - and put that food by. Doing so saves you money on higher priced food come winter, but also reduces farmer losses.

Gleanings programs that glean agricultural fields for food missed by tractors and harvesters can reduce hunger in your community and also give you free food to preserve. So can wild harvest of edibles that grow in abundance or in excess - no need for that garlic mustard to rot into compost, you might as well eat it first.

But most of all, at the home scale, food preservation can reduce the loss of food in our refrigerators and root cellars. Apples getting mushy? Don't dump them, make applesauce or apple leather. Cabbage dried on the outside? Give the chickens or rabbits the outer leaves and make sauerkraut with the inner ones. Do you have a little bit of extra oatmeal? Make crackers. Many of us have a mental image that food preservation is something one does in vast stretches of time, canning a truckload of tomatoes, or a bushel of peaches - and perhaps you'll want to do some of that too. But really, the simplest forms of preservation involve putting a little bit of what you've got a lot of up for your own enjoyment later - and to reduce the overwhelming costs of food waste.

BTW, if you'd like to learn food preservation techniques to make your gardens or your local farm produce or CSA share go further and reduce waste, or keep eating locally all winter, next Tuesday my next food preservation and storage class will be starting. It is online, asynchronous and runs for six weeks, until the end of June, covering the full range of low-input techniques for food preservation including dehydration, pressure and water bath canning, lacto-fermentation, season extension, root cellaring, dairy preservation, preservation of meats and even making booze ;-). Cost of the class is $150, and I still have a couple of scholarship spots available. This is most likely the only time I will offer this class in 2011, since I have a book to finish!

BTW, apologies if you've sent me an email or a query - I'm behind dealing with flooding. Bear with me for a few days!

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