It’s November—the month we celebrate with family and friends, feasting around a table piled high with our favorite foods. We pause to give thanks for all our blessings; and we think about how fortunate we are to share a Thanksgiving meal with loved ones—in part because there are so many who can’t. Too often, that's because, for some, there is little if any food to go around. Hunger—now often termed "food insecurity"—is a real problem in communities all around the world; and it's unlikely to go away anytime soon.
A few projections help to bring this fact into focus. By 2050, it’s estimated that Earth will be home to 9.1 billion people—34% more than today. It's thought that globally 870 million people now go hungry each and every day. It's also believed that to meet global needs, over the next 40 years we will have to produce as much food as we have during the last 8,000 years. And yet, it's estimated that 31% of food currently produced goes to waste across the food production, distribution and use continuums.
Washington's dairy farm families are grateful for the opportunity to help address hunger in our state. Doing so is a part of our commitment to support the communities that have supported us.
So, how are we contributing? Beyond the partnerships we've built with community food resources like 2nd Harvest and Food Lifeline; beyond our support for summer feeding programs for kids; beyond our Milk For Life program that provides milk—the most-requested but least-available food item in most food banks—to those in need in the Yakima Valley; beyond these things, we work hard to enhance the sustainability of our dairy farms. That may seem like an odd topic to bring up in a discussion of hunger. But in fact, food security and farm sustainability go hand-in-hand.
Food—in the form of discarded leftovers and by-products of human food production processes—is the largest contributor to landfills today. So what if we could somehow take all this food waste and re-purpose it to help fulfill the growing demand of food? Well, we can—and we are. For several years, dairy farmers right here in Washington have been using anaerobic digesters to convert cow manure into valuable resources like clean cow bedding and odorless fertilizer—the latter for use in growing more food. The VanderHaak family in Lynden, the Mensonides family in Mabton and the Werkhoven family in Monroe have all been recognized as pioneers in adapting digestion technologies to the challenge of producing more food with fewer inputs of natural resources.
We're proud of what we've achieved so far—but we’re not done. Digester systems are still evolving. When digesters are loaded with cow manure plus food waste and food production by-products (like apple pumice from the production of apple juice; potato skins from the manufacture of French fries; or spent grain from the making of alcoholic beverages) they become even more effective in reducing the environmental impacts of food waste disposal while also retrieving increasingly hard-to-recover nutrients—like phosphorus. Not to mention that digesters continue to yield methane biogas that can be used to fuel a generator and produce electricity to light up the dairy farm—or nearby suburbs.
The culmination of these efforts is a smaller environmental footprint for the dairy farm and a more sustainable food supply for a growing world population. And opportunities to do even more are unfolding before us. You can learn more about what dairy farmers across the country are doing to secure the future of food on The Plate, a collaboration between DairyGood (a dairy industry information resource) and the National Geographic Society. And if you want to help, here are 29 ideas on how to reduce food waste in your own home.
photo credit: Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy