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How These Farms Are Working to Fight Food Waste

Food
How These Farms Are Working to Fight Food Waste

Jose A. Bernat Bacete / Moment / Getty Images

By Bridget Shirvell

On a farm in upstate New York, a cheese brand is turning millions of pounds of food scraps into electricity needed to power its on-site businesses. Founded by eight families, each with their own dairy farms, Craigs Creamery doesn't just produce various types of cheddar, mozzarella, Swiss and Muenster cheeses, sold in chunks, slices, shreds and snack bars; they're also committed to becoming a zero-waste operation.


Located on Noblehurst Farms, about 500 feet from dairy cows, this creamery is home to the only biodigester in the U.S. that uses cow manure and food scraps from the cheese-making process and local businesses to create electricity. Since 2014, Noblehurst Farms has recycled 20 million pounds of food scraps in its biodigester.

"For many years, our farms have focused on producing high-quality milk while nurturing the land, but we wanted to know where our milk was going once it left our farms," said farmer and Craigs Creamery partner Chris Noble. "The cheese brand was a way to do that and diversify our businesses by investing in something that wasn't just focused on farming."

From ugly greens to zero-waste dinners to food scrap pizza, more and more consumers, businesses and nonprofits are looking for ways to repurpose food that would otherwise go to waste. On average, an individual American wastes one pound of food each day, which is enough to feed two billion people annually. Put another way, if food waste were a country, its greenhouse gas emissions would rank third in the world, after the U.S. and China. But while there has been increased attention on wasted food on plates, food waste happens at every stage of the supply chain, starting on the farm.

Take, for instance, the urban farm greenhouses of Gotham Greens in Brooklyn and Queens. The farm crew often finds greens with a bit of bruising or pest damage when they harvest their lettuce, arugula and other leafy greens. Years ago, they would use what they could from those greens for team meals, but since 2016, they've also been selling them at supermarkets, including Key Food and Whole Foods Market, under the label "Ugly Greens (Are Beautiful)," at up to 40 percent off.

Like Gotham Greens, Noblehurst Farms saw waste and was determined to find a way to use it. About five years ago, it started a sister business, Natural Upcycling, that collects food waste and scraps from local businesses, including Wegmans, for composting. Today, that food waste, along with animal manure, waste water and whey that can't be used by Craigs Creamery, goes into the biodigester. It all gets mixed together (there's a specific ratio of each ingredient) and heated up (where the bacteria eat solid waste materials to produce a gas that is drawn off the top) to fuel the 450-kilowatt electric generator that powers the 14,000-square-foot creamery, barns and houses on the property. What's left over also gets used: The liquid fertilizes crops, and the solids are dried to provide textiles, such as bedding for the cows. "We want to be able to tell a sustainable, closed-loop story of trying to power facilities with green energy," said Noble.

As they continue to work toward becoming a zero-waste facility, Craigs Creamery is recycling some of the water waste from the creamery and turning it into clean drinking water for its cows. "We're always looking at what else we can do and, so far, I think we've been pretty innovative for the dairy industry," said Noble.

From Ugly Greens to Spent Grains

Over the past few years, consumers, businesses and nonprofits have sought ways to repurpose food that might otherwise go to waste. Here are just a few of the other ways that farms like Noblehurst Farms and Gotham Greens, breweries and vineyards are using food scraps to reduce food waste.

Ugly Fruit Tree Top, a grower-owned fruit cooperative in the heart of apple country in Washington, has been saving "ugly fruit" from landfills since the 1960s, drastically cutting back on food waste and saving valuable space in landfills. What's ugly to some is beautiful, tasty food to everyone else — it just takes gumption to do things right.

Beer Waste Brooklyn-based Strong Rope Brewery is one of a number of New York breweries partnering with the start-up Rise to turn spent grains (a byproduct of making brew) into flours and decadent brownies. Similarly, in San Francisco, ReGrained uses spent grain from area breweries to make snacks.

Imperfect Produce Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative in Pennsylvania works closely with Baldor Foods to reduce waste through Baldor's Imperfect Produce program. Baldor, one of the largest produce distributors in the Northeast, has eliminated food waste through programs like SparCs (where tomato tops, celery butts, carrot shavings and other produce scraps are repurposed for humans and animals) and Imperfect Produce.

Excess Melons Arizona farmer John Boelts grows leafy greens and melons — foods that often need to be shipped within 36 hours of harvesting, which is not always possible. Boelts and other Arizona farmers have donated six to seven million pounds of vegetables to food banks that would otherwise go to waste.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Modern Farmer.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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