Column: The shocking amount of turkey scraps that end up in landfills

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As part of a long tradition in the White House, President Barack Obama today pardoned two turkeys – Tater and Tot, both of whom are heading to Virginia Tech’s Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences where students and veterinarians will take care of their needs.

The practice of freeing birds from the White House butcher block is not new. In fact, it dates back to 1863 (before Thanksgiving was recognized as an official holiday in the United States), when President Abraham Lincoln granted his son Tad’s wish to save the life of a holiday turkey. According to Smithsonian Magazine, “Ronald Reagan was the first president to use the word ‘forgiveness’ in connection with a Thanksgiving turkey,” and it was President George HW Bush who started an annual tradition of releasing a bird. festive.

Despite the relatively recent fascination with White House graces, the turkey has held a special place in the minds of American leaders since the country’s independence. Benjamin Franklin actually proposed that the turkey be the official bird of the United States. When the bald eagle was chosen instead, Franklin wrote a note to his daughter lamenting the choice, suggesting that “the turkey is a much more respectable bird” and contrasting it with the “bad moral character” of the eagle.

Of the more than 212 million turkeys raised and consumed in the United States in 2015, few eagerly await the bucolic setting that awaits Tater and Tot. According to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans ate about 46 million turkeys last year during Thanksgiving. And given that an average bird weighed 16 pounds, Americans appear to have eaten a total of around 736 million pounds of turkey at Thanksgiving dinner last year.

But such calculations can be misleading. You see, not all of the meat purchased was actually consumed. The US Department of Agriculture predicts that 35% of turkey meat will not be eaten during Thanksgiving. Where is it going? In the trash. This equates to over 200 million pounds of turkey ending up in landfills. And while that number may seem high, it is not far from the estimate of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations that one-third of the world’s food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted.

Food waste has an impact on hunger in the world, has significant costs and affects the environment. The 1.3 billion tonnes of food wasted around the world are enough to feed about 1 billion people who regularly go hungry. And we Americans are particularly wasteful. The amount of food wasted in the United States in 2010 was enough to fill the Empire State Building 91 times! Simply reducing that waste by 20 percent, notes the National Resource Defense Council, would generate enough food to feed 25 million people. Minimizing food waste globally could feed hundreds of millions of hungry people.

Food waste is also expensive. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs estimates that global food waste has an economic cost of $ 1,000 billion. In America, food waste costs an average family of four about $ 600 per year, according to a study conducted at the University of Arizona. In addition, the United States Environmental Protection Agency estimated that it would cost $ 1.3 billion to dispose of food waste in landfills in 2008. None of these figures include the opportunity costs of landfill. food production. National Geographic noted that “an area much larger than Canada has been plowed to grow food … that no one would eat.” Think about how this land could have been used otherwise!

And when it comes to the environment, food waste is not an innocent one. Due to the anaerobic process by which food waste breaks down, landfills are major producers of methane. Research from Princeton University indicates that methane is “30 times more potent as a heat-trapping gas” than carbon dioxide. The result: food waste is a major contributor to climate change. In fact, the United Nations has underscored the scale of the problem: “waste generates around 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions”. And if you were to aggregate food waste in one country, it would be the third largest producer of greenhouse gases behind the United States and China.

So what can we do? Despite the daunting challenge of food waste, there are steps we can take to help reduce the problem. We need to start by recognizing the seriousness of the problem and collecting more comprehensive data. As the old adage of management goes, you can’t measure what you don’t measure. We can also improve infrastructure related to food systems. This will reduce the losses that take place in the supply chain due to spoilage or damage. And we could consider feeding the cattle with food waste. This would save enough grain to feed 3 billion people, according to the United Nations Environment Program.

We can also work on clarifying the meaning of food date labels. Research by the Natural Resource Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic found that “the current system of best before dates misleads consumers into believing that they should throw away food to protect their own safety”, despite the fact that the dates are only guides suggested by the manufacturers. probable highest quality. The result of this “dating game” is that approximately $ 165 billion in edible food is thrown away. A simple standardization could avoid a misinterpretation of edible dates, a source of waste.

But there are also apparently small adjustments to our daily life that can add up to have a big impact. Consider that “dozens of US colleges have reduced the amount of food students eat and waste by 25-30%” by simply removing cafeteria trays, National Geographic notes. This Thanksgiving, rather than preparing individual meals, you can offer food to family and friends through a buffet, allowing them to have only what they want. And of course, you can always reduce portion sizes, a move that will both relieve pressure on your waist and reduce waste.

Best wishes for a happy Thanksgiving!


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