© Jim Wilson/The New York Times
We aren’t really meant to be cooking with field corn, which means we shouldn’t be planting it in the first place.
Not long ago, just before boarding a trans-Atlantic flight, I overheard a woman tell her friend that she had packed her own water bottle because she disliked wasting all the plastic bottles given out on planes. A few minutes later she was on the phone with another friend, explaining that she was on her way to Europe for the weekend to shop and relax.
Which got me thinking about food waste.
Food waste protesters like to rail against supermarkets for discarding “ugly” fruits and misshapen vegetables. (I should know because I’m one of them.) We question dairy’s too-soon expiration dates, and preach about the food left uneaten on our dinner plates. Such outrages have been highlighted in documentaries, journalistic exposés and late-night talk shows. They’ve sparked supermarket initiatives, food recovery programs and legislation around the world. Denmark opened its first-ever surplus-food grocery store in early 2016, and a grass-roots movement recently pushed France to become the first nation in the world to outlaw supermarket food waste.
These campaigns come from a good place, and they produce real results, but you could say they’re a little like saving plastic bottles while burning seven hours of jet fuel: well-meaning actions that, in the grand scheme of things, don’t amount to a hill of beans.
We’d be better off eating more beans. Instead Americans eat — actually we plant and harvest — about 90 million acres of corn. Iowa alone plants over half of its cropland in field corn. We don’t eat much of it. It’s used for plastics or sweeteners, or it ends up filling our gas tanks or feeding livestock (which means we do eat some of it, but only by eating meat). Wouldn’t it make more sense to cook with all that corn instead?
I tried. The problem, of course, is that field corn is just not delicious; it’s starchy and flavorless, not at all like the sweet corn Americans chain-saw through every summer. We aren’t really meant to be cooking with this stuff, which means we shouldn’t be planting it in the first place. In fact, you might say the same for many of the world’s crops: 36% of the planet’s crop calories are devoted to feeding livestock, according to a 2013 study.
What if we used those acres to plant beans, or any of the countless leguminous crops that help keep the soil healthy and fertile? And what if the next crop we planted was buckwheat or barley, for weed suppression, and then a Brassica like cabbage or cauliflower to break up disease cycles? More what ifs: What if we followed the Brassicas with a nonedible cover crop like clover, which would keep the soil nicely blanketed and replenish it with nutrients like carbon? What if, instead of bringing mountains of field corn to our cows, we brought our cows to the field and grazed them on the clover? (As one farmer told me, “Clover is like rocket fuel for ruminants.”) And what if we adapted these rotations region to region (and country to country), substituting in crops that best suited specific microclimates?
The result would not be less food, just less corn — or any of the world’s monoculture feed crops. (And less meat, which isn’t a bad thing at all.) In the process we would utilize those acres much more efficiently, feeding more people. Not to mention — or rather, to mention, and to celebrate, too — we would eat infinitely more delicious dinners.
That’s a lot of what ifs. And yet they all fall into the realm of possibility if we start to demand real diversity in our diets. No farmer will plant a crop without a market, which is why we ought to think about tackling food waste in a meaningful, systemic way, incentivizing change through cuisine.
This isn’t a new idea. It’s what peasant cooks and farmers have done for thousands of years. Their food cultures — French, Chinese, Indian, North African, but also the many regional cuisines within each — were founded on diversity and resourcefulness in the field. And they were supported by creativity and technique in the kitchen, which soaked up “waste” (be it in the form of uncoveted crops or lowly cuts of meat) without ever calling it waste, taking advantage of what the land could readily supply.
That’s something that’s missing in most of the United States — and, increasingly, throughout the rest of the world — which may be why our current food waste conversation sometimes misses the mark. To combat the seemingly insurmountable problem of food waste, what we really need is to rethink how we grow and consume food, from the ground up.
Not long ago I overheard another conversation. This time I was in Des Moines, Iowa, at a new restaurant devoted to cured meats and aged cheeses. I listened as two young entrepreneurs spoke about their plans for the future. One was about to open a microbrewery using local grain. I asked where he would find this grain in a sea of corn. He told me that he knew a few corn farmers who would plant crops like barley and rye, as long as a market was guaranteed.
The other young man was an aspiring baker. His plan was to utilize some of the same barley and rye in his baking, further incentivizing the farmer. He also planned to use the brewery’s spent grain — the leftover mash — in his baking. Just when I thought their connection couldn’t be any more symbiotic, I learned that the brewer planned to make a beer from the baker’s unsold bread.
And there it was, right in the middle of Iowa, a system ruled by diversity and maximized by efficiency: a blueprint for the future of food.