Liz Carlisle reports on food waste for Zipcar Magazine

Waste Not, Want Not: How to Reduce Food Waste (and Sustainably Feed the World)


Imagine a strategy that could increase the world food supply by 50% while diminishing greenhouse gas emissions by 7% and saving $400 billion. Impossible? Actually, it’s surprisingly simple. We just need to learn how to reduce food waste.

Globally, a whopping 1/3 of food is never consumed, and the numbers are about the same—perhaps even a little higher—in the United States. Recover that unused food and we could easily feed all 870 million of the world’s hungry. So what’s stopping us?

The problem is a bit more complicated than it sounds, as food is currently wasted at several points along the supply chain: from farms, to grocery shelves, to restaurants, to our own kitchens. Wasteful practices have become so routine in our industrial food system that we often don’t recognize them.

The good news is there’s a concerted effort afoot to solve the problem. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently established a groundbreaking national food waste target for the first time in history, calling for a 50% reduction by 2030. California passed a law that will require large grocery stores to compost or recycle their waste, which could divert huge amounts from the landfill. And the United Nations made headlines last month by serving a unique lunch to world leaders, prepared entirely from food that would have otherwise been thrown out.

Inspired? It’s a global topic, but one region is making exceptional strides towards a solution: the Bay Area. Meet some key players that are taking a bite out of food waste, and some tips for how you can do your part—wherever you call home.

Supermarkets give shoppers almost endless choices, but 1/3 of this food will go uneaten. Photo courtesy of Purestock/Thinkstock.Supermarkets give shoppers almost endless choices, but 1/3 of this food will go uneaten. Photo courtesy of Purestock/Thinkstock.


Every year, U.S. grocery stores reject 20% of the nation’s produce just because it doesn’t meet aesthetic standards. That’s right—not all tomatoes are naturally as perfectly round as the ones you see in the market. What happens to the oddballs? Believe it or not, those six billion pounds of delicious but misshapen fruit and vegetables often get thrown out. Until recently, that is.

Inspired by the “ugly fruit” movement among farmers and consumers, a California start-up called Imperfect is working to give these unique harvests a home, by delivering boxes of them directly to customers. Consumers get their produce at a 30% discount and farmers gain an additional market for crops they would otherwise throw away. Ugly produce is a win for the environment, too: Imperfect estimates that each pound saves 25 to 50 gallons of water by eliminating the need to grow another pound of (perfect-looking) produce.

An apple by any shape is just as sweet, which is why food delivery start-up Imperfect delivers misshapen produce at a steep discount. Photo courtesy of Imperfect Produce.An apple by any shape is just as sweet, which is why food delivery start-up Imperfect delivers misshapen produce at a steep discount. Photo courtesy of Imperfect Produce.


While Imperfect aims to reduce food waste on the farm, another Northern California company is helping grocery stores tackle the issue: by turning expired food into fertilizer. California Safe Soil, based in Sacramento, processes 3,750 pounds of supermarket food waste a day, converting it into a liquid fertilizer it calls Harvest to Harvest. Three years since its launch, the company estimates that is has already diverted 2.2 million pounds of food waste from the landfill, cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 3.2 million pounds, and eliminating the need for more than 1.1 million pounds of nitrogen fertilizers. That’s dirty work—with a clean mission.

California Safe Soil takes recycling to the compost bin by generating fertilizer from food scraps. Photo courtesy of Pixavril/Thinkstock.California Safe Soil takes recycling to the compost bin by generating fertilizer from food scraps. Photo courtesy of Pixavril/Thinkstock.


The low-hanging fruit (so to speak) of food recovery, however, is at the downstream end of the food chain: the surplus food that consumers simply toss. Companies and event planners are particularly notorious for ordering large quantities of food, then ditching leftovers. Eager to see this food put to good use, San Francisco social entrepreneur Komal Ahmad came up with a simple solution. Ahmad’s app, Feeding Forward, makes it easier for businesses to donate their surplus to homeless shelters. Users simply enter where they are and what they’ve got, and one of Feeding Forward’s drivers comes to pick it up. Already, the San Francisco organization has recovered 728,000 pounds of food, feeding 606,000 people.


So what can you do to reduce your own food waste footprint? Whether or not you live near these Bay Area food recovery fanatics, there are tons of things you can do from home. Here are a few tips:

1) Buy Less

Are you really going to use that whole bag of lettuce? The best way to reduce waste is to be more realistic about what we buy in the first place. Ideally, that means acknowledging that we’re probably not going to cook as often as we aspire to, and that bulk discounts are a false bargain when we end up buying more than we can use.

Want to reduce your own impact on food waste? You’ve got it in the bag. Photo courtesy of Dolgachov/Thinkstock.Want to reduce your own impact on food waste? You’ve got it in the bag. Photo courtesy of Dolgachov/Thinkstock.

2) Buy Ugly

If you’re in the Bay Area, consider Imperfect’s ugly fruit and vegetable boxes—or buy directly from a local farmer. Have no fear of the non-spherical apple! If you’re not sure where to find a nearby producer who can sell you their “seconds,” enter your zip code at Local Harvest and search for a farmers market or a Community Supported Agriculture operation that serves your neighborhood.

3) Get Creative

Do something fun with leftovers, rather than pushing them to the back of the fridge to languish. Challenge yourself to devise a meal using the three ingredients that are most in danger of spoiling.

Flex your creative chops by combining the odds and ends in your kitchen so nothing goes to waste. Photo courtesy of Polka Dot/Thinkstock.Flex your creative chops by combining the odds and ends in your kitchen so nothing goes to waste. Photo courtesy of Polka Dot/Thinkstock.

4) Donate

Recognize when you’ve got more food than you can use before it goes bad. Donate to your local food bank, which you can look up at the Feeding America website. If you regularly order food for events in the Bay Area, sign up with Feeding Forward.

5) Advocate

To tackle many of the biggest sources of food waste, we need to look beyond our kitchens. Does your city have a food waste reduction target? Does your state require large grocery stores to compost or recycle their food waste, instead of sending it to the landfill? Team up with your neighbors to find out, and advocate for a less wasteful food system.

What are your favorite tips to reduce food waste? Tell us in the comments below.


Dr. Liz Carlisle is a Fellow at the Berkeley Food Institute and the author of Lentil Underground.

Montana Pulse Crop Acreage is Up 1000%

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How pulse crops are saving Montana grain farmers

A quiet transformation is taking place in grain fields across Montana. In less than 20-years pulse crops — peas, beans and lentils — have grown from an obscure specialty crop with limited market outlets to become one of the state’s top agricultural exports.

According to Montana Department of Agriculture statistics, in 1998 fewer than 66,000 acres of Montana cropland were planted in pulse crops. That area has now expanded by more than 1,000 percent. In 2014 Montana producers planted more than 680,000 acres of field peas, lentils and garbanzo beans (also known as chickpeas).

From near zero production in the 1980s, Montana now ranks as the nation’s No. 1 producer of field peas and lentils, and the third largest producer of garbanzo beans. The combined value of these crops in 2013 exceeded $140 million. Montana’s pulse harvest is now more valuable than its durum wheat production.

The forces driving this change are both global and regional, economic and environmental.

Many Montana grain growers have turned to growing pulses, not as an alternative to wheat and barley, but to improve the quality of these crops in the years ahead. Peas, beans and lentils aren’t replacing cereal grains in Montana, they’re making them better.

“Most grain producers who have gotten into the rotation of peas and lentils are finding that their wheat is better,” said Jeff VanPevenage, senior vice-president for Columbia Grain, one of the largest grain trading corporations in the Pacific Northwest. “Their weeds are more controllable, their diseases are more controllable and their overall soil environment is better.”

For years the traditional dryland farming practice for wheat and barley in Montana has been a two-field crop rotation. Half a producer’s land was planted into grain while the other half lay fallow, allowing half the soil to rest and improve its fertility.

The system worked well for decades — aided by liberal application of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. However, beginning in the early 1990s, Montana grain producers began facing a troublesome menu of stubborn production challenges.

“They started to run into problems controlling all sets of different kinds of pests — weeds, insects and fungi,” explained Justin Flaten, co-owner of JM Grain, a leading brokerage house for the sale of pulse crops in Montana and North Dakota, “And the quality of the soil started to go down. So there was a big push to look for something that would work in a crop rotation.”

Legumes such as peas, beans and lentils have a natural ability to capture nitrogen from the air and return it to the soil. As a broad leaf plant they are also resistant to a majority of insect pests and diseases that attack grassy plants like wheat and barley.

“In Montana especially there’s been a lot of build-up of cheatgrass, goat grass and feral rye,” Flaten said. “All these grassy weeds that are really easy to kill in pulse crops with direct seeding. Both organic farmers and conventional farmers had a need for a rotation that would allow their farms to be more sustainable.”

The idea of rotating grains with pulse crops is one of the oldest concepts in agriculture. Middle Eastern farmers we’re alternately planting legumes and cereals as long as 6,000 years ago, and a three-field system of crop rotation became common practice in Europe beginning in the Middle Ages.

However, cereal/pulse rotation fell into disuse following the World War II, when chemical herbicides and fertilizers became commonly available.

Beginning in the 1970s, a small community of Montana farmers, encouraged by the organic food and “back-to-the-land” movements, began experimenting with pulse crop rotations.

“Lots of organic farmers started thinking about these crops just as green manure crops (crops which sole purpose is to enhance soil fertility),” said David Oien, “They were growing them, and then plowing them back into the ground and wouldn’t harvest the seed at all.”

Oien originally became involved with pulses as part of his pioneering effort to raise organic beef in the 1970s. Oien is now a co-owner of Timeless Seeds, Montana’s largest producer of organic lentils, chickpeas and barley.

“There really wasn’t much focus at the land grant universities or the county extension offices on organics or crop rotations or anything else,” Oien recalled. “What they were focused on was how many ounces of herbicide or insecticide you need to apply to get the greatest yield.”

There were a few exceptions to this pattern.

Since the 1940s grain growers in the Palouse, eastern Washington’s grain growing region, had continued rotating peas and lentils for a small export market. In the early 1980s, agronomists at Washington State University, South Dakota State University and the University of Saskatchewan began to take notice.

They found the advantages offered by pulse production were not limited to additional soil fertility and better weed control.

Peas, lentils and garbanzos are cool-weather plants that do well in semi-arid climates. They have a shallow root system that does not compete for the same subsoil moisture that wheat and barley does, and because they can be planted onto land that would otherwise be left fallow, garbanzos, lentils and field peas offer grain growers a second cash crop without the need for additional land.

“We’re not competing with other crops,” Flaten said. “We’re competing with fallow land, so we don’t have to push anybody else out.”

Columbia Grain began to get involved in the 1990s.

“In 1997 we took what we had learned on the Palouse and converted our grain elevator in Chinook, Montana to a pea and lentil processing facility,” recalled VanPevenage. “Production was relatively small, but it was the ‘grow it and they will come’ type of theory.”

North Dakota farmers were the next to embrace pulse crop rotation. Production spread into Montana’s northeast corner, prompting Columbia Grain to open a second processing facility in Plentywood.

“Farmers in that region were looking for somebody local to buy their crops,” VanPevenage said. “Those who were growing it were taking it to Canada, having to haul it a long ways away.”

The great turning point for pulse production in the United States came in 2002, when Congress included pulse crops in the farm bill.

“That’s when they really took off,” Flaten said. “Pulses became eligible for federal crop insurance. All of a sudden farmers were able to have a loan rate which set a floor price on pulses similar to your traditional wheat and barley.”

Pea, lentil and garbanzo production began to expand exponentially, spurred on in 2007 and 2008 by a sudden spike in the cost of synthetic fertilizers. Pulse production has also been able to take advantage of the growing popularity of vegetarianism, gluten-free foods and widespread concerns over genetically modified wheat and corn.

“Over the course of the last 10 years we’ve just been continuing to build this business,” VanPevenage said. “As time has passed we have invested a lot of capital into some very high quality processing facilities.”

Still, the largest markets for Montana pulses remains outside the United States. Roughly 70 percent of all the production is shipped overseas. India and China are the largest destinations.

“It’s part of their culture,” Oien said of Asian peoples’ enthusiasm for American grown peas and lentils.

He noted that the per capita consumption of lentils in India is more than 33 pounds a year. In the United States it’s less than 10 ounces.

Yet demand is growing. Nearly all of the U.S. supply of garbanzo beans is now being consumed domestically to feed American consumers’ new-found taste for hummus. The 2014 farm bill included provisions to promote the use of peas, lentils and beans in the school lunch program, while more and more high-end “white tablecloth” restaurants are seeking out top quality peas and lentils to serve to their customers.

The Montana Department of Agriculture predicts that more than 1.2 million acres of Montana cropland could be planted with pulses by 2025. But Oien cautions that an intensive production of peas, lentils and beans could create its own problems. Already, pulse farmers in North Dakota and Saskatchewan are experiencing increasing problems with fungi and stem rot.

“Pulse crops are not the silver bullet,” he warned. “They are just one piece in a very complex web of good agriculture.”

Liz Carlisle Op-Ed on the Food System as a Public Health Concern


Obamacare and food as a public health concern

By Liz Carlisle

August 9, 2015

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables are in place as Elly Hartshorn hosts a wine tasting for the volunteers that helped out  at her small vineyard at Alemany Farm in San Francisco, Calif., as seen on Sat. July 18, 2015. Elly Hartshorn started her vineyard by planting grapes in a slice of parkland above the Alemany Farmers Market, where she volunteered. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle
Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle
Fresh fruits and vegetables are in place as Elly Hartshorn hosts a wine tasting for the volunteers that helped out at her small vineyard at Alemany Farm in San Francisco, Calif., as seen on Sat. July 18, 2015. Elly Hartshorn started her vineyard by planting grapes in a slice of parkland above the Alemany Farmers Market, where she volunteered.

At first, San Francisco Dr. Daphne Miller got funny looks when she told colleagues she was pursuing continuing education on sustainable farms. “The moment I began working as a family physician, it became clear to me that much of the chronic disease I was treating in my office was directly traced to our system of agriculture,” Miller explains. The ecologically managed farms Miller visited gave her hope for a better way — and inspired her to get involved in how we grow our food. For Miller and an increasing share of the medical community, the imperative to change the food system is a matter of health care economics.

When the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act’s federal health insurance subsidies in June, the 6.4 million Americans who rely on these subsidies breathed a sigh of relief. Joining them were emergency room nurses, social service providers and everyone else with a front-row seat on the inhumanity and short-sightedness of denying low-income Americans access to routine health care. Since the 2010 passage of Obamacare, more than 17 million uninsured people have enrolled in a plan.

But Obamacare also offers another opportunity. The law requires private hospitals to spend 3 percent of profits on community chronic disease prevention programs and, as Miller explains, “That’s a lot of dollars that could potentially go to supporting a healthier agricultural system. We just need to connect the dots and start seeing the way we grow our food as a public health concern.”

We can begin with the American diet. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of U.S. adults are obese, and it’s costing us $147 billion a year. First lady Michelle Obama has responded by trying to increase children’s physical activity, improve school lunch and get kids in the garden — all important and laudable goals. Cities such as New York and San Francisco have attempted to introduce taxes on sugary beverages to discourage consumption; Berkeley’s soda tax passed last year and will provide an interesting test case for this policy approach.

But our unhealthy national diet is just a symptom. It’s our food system that is the disease. Agricultural policy — mostly within the federal Farm Bill — continues to prop up a food sector structured to produce the very fare associated with our most common causes of death and ill health. Because we effectively subsidize unhealthy foods, they are artificially cheap; hence, the health burden of their consumption falls disproportionately on low-income communities. As Miller says, “Primary prevention is offering everyone a healthful, affordable selection of foods; whereas secondary prevention is screening for diabetes and heart disease.”

In other words, if we really want to improve American health, we need to change the structure of this food system, from the ground up. We need to rebuild infrastructure to support diverse rotation crops, distribution of local produce, and farm-to-institution partnerships for schools, hospitals and child care facilities. We need to support our public agricultural research and agricultural extension system and direct its activities toward biologically diversified farming systems and agriculture in the public interest. Absent such changes, attempts to curb diet-related ill health merely will treat symptoms, not the disease.

Liz Carlisle is a fellow at the Center for Diversified Farming Systems at UC Berkeley and the author of “Lentil Underground,” (Gotham/Penguin Random House, 2015).

LA Times Op-Ed: How to Really Nurture America’s Young Farmers

How to really nurture America’s young farmers

Los Angeles Times
By Liz Carlisle
A bill recently introduced in Congress, the Young Farmer Success Act, would make farmers eligible for federally subsidized student loan forgiveness — just as teachers and nurses are now — on the grounds that agriculture is a public service. But is it?

Certainly the history of U.S. farm policy would suggest that lawmakers have long seen agriculture as a public good. Why else would they pass a farm bill that, in its most recent iteration, commits $134 billion to farm subsidies, commodity programs and insurance? Why would California so assiduously defend agricultural water rights in the midst of a severe drought?

Arguably agriculture is more than a good; it’s a necessity, because everyone eats. But given that most U.S. crops will become fuel, animal feed, processed food components, export commodities or waste, the reality is a bit more complicated.

The truth is that agriculture is a hybrid public-private activity, and when it comes to evaluating the costs and benefits of its public fraction, not all farming is created equal.

The dominant approach to farming in the U.S. — the one encouraged by the last 150 years of agricultural policy — focuses on maximizing the immediate private benefit to the farmer, measured in yield of cash crops. Public benefits of commodity farming, its supporters argue, include open space, the preservation of rural life and the American agrarian tradition, and — the boon most touted by the architects of 20th century farm policy — an advantage in the balance of foreign trade.

However, some of these benefits have proved hollow. Commodity farming has led to larger and larger farms, which have meant smaller and smaller rural communities, and the flood of grain has continually driven down prices.

Is farming a public service? Well, it depends, and not on the age of the farmer. –
Simultaneously, commodity farming has led to a number of public “bads,” from dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico (caused by nitrogen fertilizer runoff) to toxic manure lagoons and poor air quality (due to confinement animal feeding operations). Plus, if you follow these commodity crops all the way to their eventual consumption by the public, an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. When you consider all its externalized costs, cheap food is not so cheap.

In response to widespread concern about these negative effects, the Reagan-era Department of Agriculture developed a parallel but less influential policy approach to farming, one that aims to maximize not private gain but environmental good such as wildlife habitat and watershed protection. This alternative strategy encourages nonproduction, as epitomized by the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to leave land fallow.

What has only recently come to the attention of policymakers, however, is that the soundest long-term approach to farming and conservation comes from understanding them not as opposing objectives but as two goals grounded in the same foundation.

Farmers, in other words, don’t have to stop planting crops to help the environment. Farms are sutured into living ecosystems, and their production is reliant on the health of those ecosystems. It is entirely possible for farmers to raise nutritious food and also protect water quality, invest in soil fertility and actively promote a diverse community of pollinators, beneficial insects and plant species.

So back to the question: Is farming a public service? Well, it depends, and not on the age of the farmer. Although there’s a feel-good quality to supporting young farmers — and young farmers are proportionally more likely to manage their lands organically — age does not map neatly onto farming practices. More fundamentally, paying young farmers’ college loans does nothing to change the incentive structure of U.S. agriculture to truly support them in farming for the long-term common good.

Instead of loan forgiveness, why not subsidize land access for farmers who commit to water conservation practices, cover cropping, crop rotation and avoidance of toxic chemicals? Why not expand the program that directly funds young people to participate in public service — AmeriCorps — including the portion that focuses on the food system, FoodCorps?

It’s a missed opportunity to encourage young people to work on a farm, any farm, as if they were all equally beneficial to the American public. It makes far more sense to incentivize specific practices.

Liz Carlisle is a fellow at the Center for Diversified Farming Systems at UC Berkeley and the author of “Lentil Underground.”

Read this op-ed on the LA Times website

Summer Events in Montana

The Lentil Underground tour kicks off summer with a June 4 stop in Red Lodge, Montana, and we’ll be in Lewistown, Billings, Livingston, and Missoula in mid-July.  Watch the events page for details!