Waste Not, Want Not — Reducing Food Waste in America

food waste

Food waste is a major component of solid waste in landfills. Decomposing food creates methane, a potent greenhouse gas. (Photo credit: g215/Shutterstock)

In the United States, 40 percent of all food produced remains uneaten. Some of this food has spoiled, some of it was left in the fields to rot, and some of it never made it to market after being harvested. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Americans routinely throw away about 20 pounds of food per month, which equates to about $28-43 worth of food. In all, it is estimated that $165 billion are squandered each year when perfectly edible food goes uneaten. Why is there so much food waste? And what can you do about it?

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Putting Heritage Turkeys Back on the Table

Turkey is a common sight on Thanksgiving. (Photo credit: Photodisc/Getty Images)

The centerpiece of many Thanksgiving dinners in the United States is a roasted turkey. According to the United States Agricultural Department (USDA), it is expected that over 242 million broad-breasted white turkeys–the standard turkey found in your local supermarket–will be raised in the United States. This Thanksgiving alone, it is estimated that Americans will consume 46 million turkeys. However, a growing number of small-scale poultry producers across the United States are eschewing modern industrial farming practices and instead are raising unique and rare breeds of turkeys that have been around since the very first Thanksgiving feast in 1621.

An Introduction to Heritage Turkeys

According to the Heritage Turkey Foundation, heritage turkeys were originally bred for fine flavor, beauty, and thriftyness, a quality that referred to the amount of meat produced from the quantity of food fed to the turkey. Turkeys are a quintessential American food–all domesticated turkeys in the United States are descendants of wild turkeys native to North and South America.

There are three criteria a turkey must meet to qualify as a heritage turkey, according to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC). These qualities include the following:

  • The turkeys must reproduce naturally by mating. In order to qualify as a heritage turkey, the turkey must be the result of naturally mating pairs of both grandparent and parent stock.
  • The turkeys must have a long productive outdoor lifespan. Breeding hens most be productive for five to seven years. Breeding toms must be productive for three to five years. It is imperative that the turkeys have the genetic ability to withstand the rigors of living outdoors.
  • The turkeys must have a slow, natural growth rate. The birds should reach marketable weight in about 28 weeks. This long period of growth lets the birds develop strong skeletal structures and healthy organs prior to putting on muscle mass.

This male turkey (commonly called a ‘tom’) is an example of the Bourbon Red heritage breed. (Photo credit: Keith J Smith/Alamy)

There are a number of different breeds of heritage turkeys. Many of the turkeys were originally bred for qualities such as productivity or specific color patterns. Among the breeds that are named by the American Poultry Association as standard breeds are Black, Bronze, Narragansett, White Holland, Slate, Bourbon Red, Beltsville Small White, and Royal Palm. Two other popular varieties of heritage turkeys include the Jersey Buff and White Midget.

Over the past ten years, populations of heritage breeds of turkeys have been on the rise. According to Marjorie Bender, ALBC research and technical program director, in 1997 there were 1328 breeder birds; just three years ago, that number had grown to 10,404 breeder birds. Though most heritage turkey breeds are still endangered, there populations are much more secure than they were ten years ago.

Comparing Heritage Turkeys to Standard Turkeys

What makes heritage turkeys different from the standard turkeys you might find in your local supermarket? The standard turkey you most often find in the supermarket is a breed called the broad-breasted white turkey. These turkeys have been bred to provide a large amount of breast meat. Because of their abnormally large breast-size, the turkeys are unable to reproduce naturally. Instead, artificial insemination is necessary. Without human intervention, these turkeys would go extinct after just one generation.

In addition, while heritage turkeys must be free to roam, most broad-breasted white turkeys are raised in confined conditions. Due to these confined conditions, the turkeys are given antibiotics and other supplements to prevent the spread of disease. Heritage turkeys are certified antibiotic-free. The diets of both types of birds are also different. Since heritage turkeys are allowed to roam freely in the outdoors, they feed on a natural diet of insects, seeds, and grasses. Industrial turkeys are fed a steady diet of grains. According to research conducted by the USDA Sustainable Agriculture and Research Education Program, meat from turkeys that spent some portion of their lifetime outside had 21 percent less total fat, 30 percent less saturated fat, 28 percent fewer calories, 50 percent more vitamin A and 100 percent more omega-3 fatty acids.

Turkey is a common sight on Thanksgiving. (Photo credit: INSADCO Photography/Alamy)

One of the biggest differences between a standard turkey and a heritage turkey is the length of time it takes for each to reach maturity. Standard turkeys reach an average weight of 32 pounds over a period of 18 weeks. This length of time to maturity is 10 weeks earlier than it takes for heritage turkeys to reach maturity. To put this value into perspective, a market-ready standard turkey is the equivalent of an 11-year-old child weighing 300 pounds.

Drawbacks and a Look to the Future

One of the benefits of industrially-raised turkeys is their low cost in the marketplace. Raising a large amount of turkeys in a small space under standardized conditions lets producers sell them at the supermarket for a lower price. Because heritage turkeys require more space and take longer to grow to maturity, they are more expensive to raise. This added expense is passed on to the consumer. Compared to a standard supermarket turkey, heritage turkeys are often exponentially more expensive.

Because most heritage turkeys are produced by small-scale farms, they are often fairly difficult to procure. Most heritage turkeys are accounted for long before the Thanksgiving holiday. Although the production of heritage turkeys remains a niche industry, a growing interest in organic and sustainably-produced food products is helping to bring the breeds to the forefront. Without the farmers’ intervention, many of the breeds of heritage turkeys would go extinct. By continuing to raise these rare and unique breeds of turkeys, poultry farmers help to maintain the genetic diversity of turkey species.

“Endangered breeds are a significant part of biological diversity in agriculture,” Ms. Bender said. “These breeds are important to conserve because they provide options for the future. Agriculture will change, [and] the animals will be able to meet the new demands only if we assure their survival.”

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Scientists Develop Iron-Rich Rice Plant

Iron deficiency can be a problem for those who do not eat a well-balanced diet, and it can be an especially insidious problem for populations in developing countries. Women and children are particularly vulnerable to iron deficiency. Symptoms of iron deficiency include pronounced fatigue and an inability to metabolize certain harmful substances. Iron deficiency can lead to anemia, which is a condition in which the body does not produce enough healthy red bloods necessary to transport oxygen to the body’s tissues. In many developing countries, one of the major food sources (and sometimes only food source) is rice. Rice, in its unaltered form, is actually a good source of iron. However, most rice provided to populations in developing countries is peeled rice; that is, the seed coat has been removed. The seed coat is often removed to give the rice a longer shelf life; rice that retains its seed coat is likely to spoil faster in sub-tropical and tropical climates typically found in developing countries.

Because iron supplements or other food sources are not readily available or overly expensive, scientists are working on developing an iron-rich variety of rice. Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (also referred to as ETH Zurich) have had success in doing just that.

Lead researchers Christof Sautter and Wilhelm Gruissem worked with colleagues to genetically modify a rice plant to increase its iron content. In their experiment, the scientists inserted two plant genes into an existing variety of rice. The two inserted plant genes work together to both mobilize and store iron. In addition, the inserted genes aid in the rice plant’s ability to absorb a greater quantity of iron from the soil and also store more iron in the rice kernel. Most importantly, the modified rice plant was shown to have a six-fold increase in iron content compared to a typical (unmodified) rice plant.

More research and experiments, including tests to see whether the modified rice plants will grow under typical agricultural conditions, are necessary before the modified rice plants will be available commercially. Regulations require that genetically-modified seeds and plants must undergo a rigorous period of greenhouse and field testing to ensure that it is safe for human consumption and will not have negative impacts on an ecosystem. In addition, the scientists are interested in increasing the modified rice plant’s iron content to at least twelve-fold; that is, twice the level they currently have achieved. Upon the modified rice plants eventual assumed approval, the scientists would like to provide it to small-scale and self-sufficient farmers at no cost, given the crop’s humanitarian implications.

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Pharm-Fresh Medicine

If one British researcher has his way, tobacco would be grown to save lives. Professor Julian Ma of the GM tobacco project at the Centre for Infection in London grows genetically engineered tobacco plants that carry an algae gene to make a protein the plant doesn’t need. The protein is then extracted from the plants and used to make a cream that may fight the spread of HIV. In other parts of the world, scientists are growing genetically modified (GM) plants that produce dietary supplements and vaccines against viruses such as rabies and hepatitis B.

The technique used to make the GM plants is called pharming, or pharmaceutical farming. While GM crops are very controversial, these plants could potentially save millions of lives around the world. GM crops that carry corrective medicines can be grown, harvested and their medicines purified at a fraction of the cost of traditional means. This new breed of GM crop could be the best way to get low-cost medicines to countries where a dollar per prescription or dose is still too expensive.

Professor Ma makes a case for his and similar research: “The advantages they [GM plants] offer simply cannot be equaled by any other system. They provide the most promising opportunity open to us to supply low-cost drugs and vaccines to the developing world.”

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