This week I’ve been writing about my time on Catalina learning what some of the brilliant minds of today are doing to solve problems of food security for a better future.
You can read my recent posts on reducing food waste using black soldier flies and revolutionizing food production with aquaponics to learn more. Both of these processes involve a little (or a big) investment to get started, and while both will hopefully become a huge part of our future food system, there are even simpler things each of us can be doing right now to increase our food security, reduce our reliance on synthetic chemicals and the corporate food system, while also reconnecting with the environment.
I was able to reconnect with nature a bit myself while on Catalina—not just through peaceful morning walks on the high bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, or enjoying the stars in a night sky free of the Los Angeles street light pollution—but also with a special trip to Howlands Landing. Howlands is a campground on the West End of Catalina Island, and plays host to the Catalina Environmental Leadership Program (CELP).
The program teaches students of all ages, elementary school through college, about sustainability using their own organic edible garden and composting facility. Howlands is nestled in a gorgeous little hidden valley nestled between the steep hills of Catalina’s northwest corner and a rocky cove that looks out onto the sparkling ocean, teaming with coastal kelp forests and marine wildlife.
Last Thursday, as part of the USC alternative spring break program, I was able to tour the garden and even partake in some of the amazing fresh vegetables being grown there. The garden is maintained largely by groups of volunteers. The day we visited, there was a group from the University of Colorado, and another group from a midwestern university, helping staff build new garden beds, remove cactus, and plant the spring crop.
CELP also exposes younger children to gardening and teaches them about compost and permaculture. In fact, every group that visits Howlands participates in hands-on activities in the garden. Our group helped pour the morning’s breakfast leftovers into the compost bin and stir it together with carbon-rich cardboard. Liz, our amazing tour guide for the day, explained how Howlands Camp composts all of its own vegetarian food waste (meat and dairy are transported to another facility on the island to be processed since these products can be more difficult to compost in a sanitary, non-smelly way). She showed us the worm composting bins as well, where worms break down food waste and create a nutrient dense compost tea that can be used as concentrated fertilizer.
The camp actively promotes conscientious eating, offering at least one meatless meal each day. Camp visitors learn about and participate in composting, recycling, planting, and harvesting of the organic produce grown in the teaching garden. Most of the plants are watered using water-efficient drip irrigation, and plants are chosen based on their appropriateness for the dry Mediterranean climate of the island.
The day we visited, Liz guided our students through the garden while they snipped fresh herbs, kale, chard, lemon, and more. Bees buzzed lazily passed us as we strolled along the pleasant garden paths attracted by purple sage and other bright flowers. Dozens of tiny succulents and seedlings dangled from little hanging glazed pots. Fruit trees and native Malva Rosa provided sprinklings of shade. It was entirely pleasant and relaxing, yet full of energy from bursting new growth and volunteers bustling around the garden beds.
After our garden tour and ‘harvesting’ session was complete, Liz helped the students chop the greens and massage the kale (yep, that’s a thing), dressing the mix with olive oil and vinegar. The best part of our homemade snack was the loaf of rosemary bread that had been freshly baked in a solar oven right in the garden! Nothing hits the spot more than fresh warm bread and crisp salad after a morning working in the garden. The leafy greens were bursting with flavor, and the lemon wedges we finished the meal off with were sweet and juicy enough to eat on their own.
Liz finished off our tour with a discussion about organic versus ‘conventional’ agriculture. The CELP program teaches children about the dirty dozen (the fruits and vegetables with the highest recorded pesticide contents) and how to reduce their exposure to these toxins. CELP also teaches about the benefits of organic gardening and permaculture. I was truly impressed with CELP’s hands-on style, their beautiful grounds, and the extent of their sustainable practices. I hope that they can continue to serve as a successful model for many other teaching facilities looking to reduce their ecological footprint. And that they keep baking that amazing bread!
What if we could produce most of the food we eat right in our backyards, without using any chemicals or soil, and without producing any waste to go to the landfill? Wouldn’t that be amazing? Sounds like some idealistic Ecotopia scenario, but guess what? It is 100% possible!
That’s the groundbreaking fact I learned this week after attending a five-day program on Catalina Island focused on the Future of Food. Topics ranged from food waste and biological farming to backyard aquaponics and sustainable fisheries. One of the very first ideas presented by guest speakers was so jaw-droppingly revolutionary that it has the potential to change our entire food AND energy systems!
Send in the Flies
This innovative idea that is about to blow your mind is the brainchild of two established biology professors: Ken Nielson (of USC) and Radu Popa. These inspiring individuals may have invented a way to solve two of society’s biggest problems: eliminating large-scale food waste and providing abundant renewable energy to the masses. It sounds unbelievable, but their system is beautiful in its (relative) simplicity—and it all relies on insects. Black soldier flies, to be exact.
Ken calls his project the Black Soldier Fly alternative, or BSFA for short. He and Radu have developed a process in which they can convert nearly all food waste (whether from your home kitchen or an industrial food producer) to a rich insect feed for the black soldier fly larva. The feed is created using Bokashi fermentation, where a combination of aerobic and anaerobic bacteria break down the waste and release valuable nutrients in the process—not so unlike the methods used to produce fermented vegetables and drinks, like that fancy Kombucha you picked up from Whole Foods. As a result, valuable nutrients from the waste like calcium, nitrogen, and phosphorus are made available for re-use.
Just think about that for a second. Eliminating all food waste. Currently, Americans throw away about 40% of the food we buy each year, most of which ends up in local landfills, rotting and releasing greenhouse gases like methane. It costs the city of Los Angeles alone $64 million dollars a year in tipping fees to dump the 1.3 million tons of food waste Angelenos produce. Of course, reducing how much we throw out in the first place would be the best approach, but changing individual and industrial behavior will not happen overnight, so in the meantime we need to find better ways to eliminate this waste. Composting helps, but can only accommodate about 10-15% of total food waste, meaning the rest still gets thrown out. All of that food waste could instead be converted to insect feed and actually result in a net financial gain. Here’s how:
The nutrient-rich liquid that results from fermentation is fed to the fast growing soldier fly larvae. A portion of these larvae will be harvested as animal feed for chickens and other livestock, reducing the need to rely on fishmeal, soybean oil, and other unsustainable feed sources. The larvae waste (i.e. poop) can also be used as a rich fertilizer for plants and crops (or aquaponics systems, which I’ll discuss in my next post). But the truly miraculous aspect of this endeavor comes from something else the larvae produce: melanin.
That’s right, melanin—the stuff that regulates our skin and hair color, as well as the coloration of animals, such as the spots on a squid. It turns out that melanin is a powerful electricity conductor, making it a perfect substance to use in rechargeable batteries. Yet you’ve probably never seen a melanin battery in your local store. Why? Normally, melanin is very expensive to produce, much too costly to support a lucrative battery industry. That is, it was too expensive. Ken and Radu have discovered that black solider fly larvae produce relatively large quantities of melanin in their bodies, which can be extracted for human use, including for batteries. Melanin batteries would be completely organic, non-toxic, and biodegradable. No more reliance on precious metals and harmful battery acids.
When Ken first described this to his audience in the lecture hall on Catalina, the concept didn’t seem to sink in. So he repeated his conclusion: Through the BSFA process, we can eliminate food waste, produce rich animal feed and fertilizer, and most importantly, create a renewable source of melanin to produce completely biodegradable batteries. An entirely closed-loop system! Melanin batteries could be used effectively to store energy produced by renewable sources such as wind and solar—energy sources that are difficult to store with current battery technology.
Even the adult black soldier flies provide financial value to the system. Once they reproduce and lay eggs, they die. Their exoskeletons are high in chitin, a polymer with numerous commercial uses including wastewater treatment, bandages, a binder for dyes, fabrics, and adhesives, and more.
Ken and Radu have established a private venture, partnered with a company called River Road Research, to continue to tweak and expand this system—which Ken wryly describes as the first example of insect domestication—and are hoping to soon trial it on a massive scale by working with food producers and cities in the near future. Their hope is to turn food waste into a lucrative commodity that ultimately benefits cities, agricultural production, livestock production, and the renewable energy sector.
In my next post I’ll discuss the concept of aquaponics, another sustainable approach to food production and waste elimination that is set to change the way we think about food. We humans may have a fighting chance thanks to some brave and cunning individuals!