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Take stock of waste

Americans waste a staggering amount of food. The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Americans generate nearly 30 million tons of food waste each year, roughly 12 percent of our total waste stream. Approximately 30 percent of food available for consumption is squandered.

Waste happens at all levels of food production and distribution, though many of us may only consider what goes into our own trash cans, compost bins, garbage disposals or pickups when we drive to the dump.

Food waste in landfills generates methane, a potent gas that may accelerate climate change. Vast amounts of fuel are consumed in food production and transportation — all the more tragic when the food itself ultimately gets thrown out.

I recently came across a BBC film called "Food Superhighway" that I show to my students. The documentary showcases the remarkable —— yet environmentally costly —— skill we've developed in the past couple of decades for getting food from faraway farms and greenhouses to our mouths. Egyptian farmers grow potatoes in desert soils irrigated with water pumped from an aquifer deep underground that can't be recharged. The potatoes are then shipped to distant markets in northern Europe. The film also demonstrates how shipping containers —— the ubiquitous, rectangular boxes that sit atop ships, trucks and trains —— bring food to and from ports.

We're planning to accommodate even larger, so-called Panamax ships crammed with containers that will ply through the soon-to-be-wider Panama Canal. In the meantime, we're dredging deeper ports and even elevating bridges to squeeze in these behemoths. "Food Superhighway" showcases the paradox of efficiency and how unsustainable our present food-distribution system is.

There are alternatives. Food processors can cut waste by using parts of plants they currently discard. A Spanish study of onion waste appeared in the journal Plant Foods for Human Nutrition. Onions are the second-most important horticultural crop in the world —— next to tomatoes —— with global production estimated at 66 million tons annually. In the European Union alone, a half-million tons of onion biomass go to waste each year, in part due to onion processing. The researchers' goal was to explore how the outer skin, scales, tops and bottoms could be put to use after finding out that different parts of onions have specific nutrients and health benefits.

Food scientists are pioneering use of pumpkin waste for fiber- and carotene-rich snack foods. Tomato waste is rich in lycopene, a well-researched plant nutrient that companies incorporate into dietary supplements. Indian scientists have been looking at ways to use waste parts of legumes and cauliflower, as well.

As consumers of all these foods, we can use the leftovers to make broth or stock. As a last resort, compost them. If you go to local farmers markets and grab a bunch of carrots with the greens attached, and you don't plan to use or compost them, the farmer-vendor likely will take the greens back and compost them for you so they don't end up in the trash.

By eating the products of local growers and purveyors, we decentralize the food economy and boost food security regionally. That's a step in the right direction for our health and that of the planet, too.

Michael Altman is a nutritionist at Ventana Wellness and teaches at Southern Oregon University. Email him at altmanm@sou.edu.