MU researchers attempt to minimize dining hall waste

Professor Ron McGarvey: “Whenever you throw away a pound of beef, you aren’t just throwing away the food.”
MU researchers look to consider more than the price tag impacts of food waste to environmental impacts.

MU researchers hope to adopt their findings about the environmental costs of food waste in campus dining halls following months of research conducted by two MU professors and a doctoral student. The researchers concluded that animal-based products have a substantially higher environmental cost relative to plant-based foods.

“The dining halls can implement my program,” doctoral student Esma Birisci said. “Right now, we are only working with the Mark Twain dining hall, but I hope that all the dining halls can implement my findings.”

Assistant professors Ron McGarvey and Christine Costello, along with Birisci, decided to take an alternative approach toward the issue of environmental cost and focus on food waste with their research.

“In this study, we focused on the environmental cost of wasted food, not the environmental cost of food that is consumed,” McGarvey said.

The data produced provides insight into the real production costs, which go beyond the simplicity of a price tag. Plant-based products, such as corn or apples, have a relatively low environmental cost. However, meats and other animal-based products have substantially higher costs attributed to their production.

The reason for the difference between animal-based and plant-based costs lies in the steps taken to produce such products. In the case of vegetables, fruits and other plant-based products, the cultivation process is a relatively simple one. Most of the input needed to grow the aforementioned goods are natural resources, such as sunlight and water. Animal-based products, on the other hand, follow a more resource intensive agenda.

To explain this issue, McGarvey used beef, one of the most resource-intensive animal products, in a scenario.

“Whenever you throw away a pound of beef, you aren’t just throwing away the food,” McGarvey said. “It’s useful to think about the resources which were needed to produce that pound of food. You had to feed the cow and grow it over its life. So you had to grow so many pounds of corn, and to grow the corn you needed to use fuel and fertilizer; once the cow leaves the farm, there are a whole other set of resources and everything else you needed to process the cow into meat for consumption.”

These findings lead to a simple conclusion: The waste of animal byproducts has the potential to place a substantial strain on available resources. Such feedback has resulted in the heightened motivation to start making changes in the all-you-care-to-eat dining halls found on campuses nationwide. At MU, solutions to excessive food waste have begun to be developed.

McGarvey said solutions for reducing waste include providing smaller plates in dining halls and posting signs which encourage students to take only as much food as they plan to eat. While he said these changes have been beneficial, there is still more the group wishes to accomplish.

A more formal and permanent solution to the issue has been the focus of Birisci’s research over the past couple of years. She has spent the past months crunching numbers and sorting through the data to find a solution.

With a final wrap-up of the study’s findings coming in early December, the two members of this research team are hoping for more thorough consideration when it comes to filling up a plate in dining halls.

Edited by Claire Mitzel |

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