Courtesy of Jordan Dairy Farm, Rutland, Mass.
Courtesy of Jordan Dairy Farm, Rutland, Mass.

Harnessing the Potential of a Nation’s Leftover Food

America’s dairy farmers use food waste to generate green energy and grow more food.

Analysis has shown an estimated 31 percent of food available for consumption is simply thrown away. It could be for any number of reasons, and thrown away by an array of sources—from grocery stores, restaurants, and each of us, every day.

If we were able to save some of this food and reduce losses by just 15 percent, we could feed more than 25 million Americans every year, according to Natural Resources Defense Council. That’s significant when one in six Americans lack a secure supply of food.

“The pressures on the global food system are undeniable. By 2050, it’s estimated the world’s food production must increase by 60 percent to feed a projected global population of 9 to 10 billion,” says Dana Gunders, staff scientist in food and agriculture for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I see the huge amounts of wasted food as a reservoir we could be pulling from to meet that future demand.”

Food is the largest contributor to landfills today, and communities are taking steps to reduce that. Massachusetts recently banned organic food waste from landfills and a growing number of states and cities are also doing so – Connecticut, Vermont, Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland – who have all put similar bans in place within the past three years.

There are other ways we can get the most from the food we produce and help nourish the growing population here and around the world. Instead of throwing it away, we can find creative ways to use leftovers, share what is left with those in need, and any waste beyond that should go back to the land base where nutrients can help replenish soil fertility to grow more food.

In recent years, farmers have used anaerobic digesters to convert animal manure into electricity, high quality bedding for animals, and other usable resources.

“An anaerobic digester simply provides an environment for nature to do its work – the manure and food waste we put into the digester are broken down by microorganisms, and the process produces the biogas we use to generate electricity,” explains Randy Jordan, dairy farmer at Jordan Dairy Farm located in Rutland, Massachusetts. “In addition to electricity, the process leaves behind an odorless fertilizer which we apply to our fields to help grow more food.”

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Jordan Dairy, a fifth generation dairy farm located in Massachusetts, installed an anaerobic digester on their farm in June 2011. Courtesy of Jordan Dairy Farm, Rutland, Mass.

While this isn’t a new technology – many digesters on farms in Europe have been in operation for over 20 years – the way farmers utilize them is changing.

Traditionally, farmers have used anaerobic digesters to convert animal manure into fertilizer. But through research, we’ve discovered that digesters are even more effective in recovering important nutrients when the manure is combined with food waste – and this application helps put the nutrients to good use.

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Food waste from a nearby community is collected and delivered to the dairy farm to be added to the anaerobic digester. Courtesy of Sensenig Dairy Farm, Kirkwood, Penn. (Photo by Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy)

This innovative approach has led farmers to build strategic partnerships with others including NFL stadiums, grocery chains, food companies, and universities to recover and use food waste as a resource.

Jordan Dairy Farm was the first dairy farm in Massachusetts to use anaerobic digester technology. Randy, along with his brother Brian Jordan, receive byproducts and organic food waste from local sources including HP Hood & Sons, Cabot Creamery Cooperative, Kayem Foods, and Cains Foods. The farm puts 25 percent cow manure and 75 percent organic food waste into their anaerobic digester – generating enough electricity every day to power 134 homes.

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An engine burns the methane gas collected in the anaerobic digester to generate electricity. The electricity is utilized to power the dairy farm and also provides energy to the local community. Courtesy of Sensenig Dairy Farm, Kirkwood, Penn. (Photo by Peter Denison)

While a large number of farms in Europe have anaerobic digesters, we haven’t met the market potential in the United States. According to research by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, there are currently 239 anaerobic digesters on livestock farms in the United States, but the potential for more than 2,600 exists. If mixed with food waste, this has a potential market value of more than $3 billion and would remove the equivalent of emissions from 3.2 million passenger cars (13 million metric tons CO2e). White House initiatives like the Biogas Opportunities Roadmap, which builds on efforts to identify

ways to reduce methane emissions and supports the U.S. dairy industry’s goal to decrease its greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2020, along with the Rural Investment fund designed to stimulate private investment in these types of infrastructure projects, will help farmers overcome barriers to meet this market potential.

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Dairy farmers are embracing this opportunity. A growing number are expanding their important role in sustainable food production by adding an anaerobic digester. Courtesy of Jordan Dairy Farm, Rutland, Mass.

“If we are going to succeed in feeding the human population while maintaining biodiversity, there’s no room for waste,” says Sandra Vijn, director of dairy for World Wildlife Fund. “Taking that ‘waste’ and making it a valuable commodity takes both innovation and collaboration, and that’s exactly what we’re starting to see with some of these partnerships.”

When people visit a dairy farm, many are surprised at the role of dairy cows in our food system, beyond providing nutritious milk. In addition to their essential role in supplying manure for an anaerobic digester, they are also “recyclers” in other ways. Despite popular belief that livestock feed and human food can be used interchangeably (and therefore livestock are in direct competition with humans for food), recent studies indicate 99 percent of a cow’s diet in the United States is either inedible or undesirable based on food market demand. A cow digests nutrients in many types and parts of plants that people can’t eat, like pasture, hay and corn silage, along with plant parts like citrus pulp that is leftover from making orange juice. Additionally, the farmer then uses a cow’s manure to grow more food. In fact, 17 gallons of manure produced from one cow daily provides enough nutrients to grow 56 pounds of corn.

“The solution to hunger and food waste are intimately linked,” says Elaine Waxman, vice president of research and nutrition at Feeding America. “With billions of pounds of food wasted each year, we work closely with the USDA, EPA, and other food industry partners including dairy, and their innovative efforts will go a long way to address this.”

As we become more connected to where food comes from, we become more conscious of the role we play in making the most of the food we produce and consume. We can all be more aware of how interconnected the food system really is, and doing our part as individuals, communities and businesses to ensure a sustainable supply of food for future generations.

Erin Fitzgerald is the senior vice president, sustainability at Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.