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Mae Humiston & Sara Gardner |Let’s Talk About Food

End of the line

Published: Thursday, November 15, 2012

Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 08:11

We have arrived, boys and girls, at the end of the food system line — or have we? We started in production, stopped along the way at distribution and consumption and are now here, at disposal. Disposal in the industrial food model ends in the landfill. Our food waste, comprised of expired supermarket goods, production byproducts and student leftovers among other things, largely gets thrown away. Out of sight, out of mind, right? Well, only for so long. The problem with the one−way track of the industrial food model is that there are only so many resources in our world. One of the main resources under depletion is topsoil, and when what is taken from the soil — nutrients, minerals, etc. — does not return, the soil quickly fades from a vibrant miniature ecosystem to sterile dirt. And things don’t really like growing in sterile dirt.

Wait a minute, I thought we were talking about disposal, not soil. We are! Production and disposal aren’t connected in the industrial model, but in more sustainable models, disposal links directly back to production. Take, for example, compost. Compost is a good addition to soil because of its high colloid count, which makes it a great nutrient retainer. To make compost, collect your non−animal food waste, such as your old banana peels, onion skins and bread heels, throw it in an outdoor compost receptacle which can be anything that will hold your compost and still let air get to it, and basically wait a year. After a year — or shorter if you take time to stir it or practice “layering” — you’ll find yourself with a rich, moist, soil−like material. Spread that bad boy on your garden and watch your plants go nuts.

For most of us students, however, the backyard compost pile isn’t an option. Still, students can pretty easily compost on campus. Most dorms have a compost bin, there are compost drop−offs behind Miller and Tisch and the Tom Thumb Student Garden is always happy to take your food scraps. Additionally, the dining halls do compost student food waste through a large composting company. Because it takes our waste and uses it to restore soil, composting is an easy way to connect disposal back to production.

Another thing to think about, but perhaps not the best topic for dinner conversation, is the use of animal waste as fertilizers in otherwise chemically−enhanced production. The amount of animal waste from feedlots, which are a problem in their own right, is very high and is extraordinarily high in nitrogen. There is an area the size of New Jersey in the Gulf of Mexico that is known as the “Dead Zone” because the amount of high−nitrogen run−off from farms, yards and feedlots has turned the area hypoxic, or low−oxygen, which means that most things can’t live there anymore. However, if this run−off could be redirected to fields that are low in nitrogen, those nutrient−deficient plants would be perfectly satisfied.

These are only two ways to connect disposal and production, but they both speak to the idea that this kind of connection limits the necessity for man−made inputs such as chemical fertilizers, which are economically, environmentally and energetically expensive. In nature, plants “eat” sun and soil nutrients, bugs eat plants, animals eat bugs, animals eat other animals, the last consumer dies, decomposes and a plant grows where it fell, taking advantage of the nutrients the deceased is now returning to the soil. It is a natural system that the conventional food production system blatantly ignores, to the detriment of soil, food quality, producers, consumers and everything in between.

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Sara Gardner is a freshman who has not yet a declared a major. She can be reached at Sara.Gardner@tufts.edu. Mae Humiston is a senior majoring in anthropology. She can be reached at Mae.Humiston@tufts.edu.

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