Food waste turns into fortune

Food waste turns into fortune

Food waste is the bleeding wound of today’s world. In a world where millions do not have access to adequate food, or simply starve, the huge amounts of waste disturb the human conscience. In many parts of the world, people seek ways of preventing food waste, not only in home kitchens, but also on a grander scale, such as establishing food banks to distribute food to the needy, making use of the unsold products that are about to expire, or whose packaging is damaged. In this direction, non-governmental organizations lead projects raising awareness and forcing rules to be in effect, succeeding in some countries banning markets from throwing away still edible food.

It is certain that there is much that each individual can do, but there are much greater gains that can be brought by acting together in an organized manner. Most of the waste on the way from the field to the table happens in the market before it reaches the kitchens. In this country, the weekly-held neighborhood markets are major shopping spots for the masses, and it’s where serious amounts of waste are created. It is a long-practiced model for the low-income to collect the leftovers before the market closes, but the size of the loss is so great that it cannot be prevented with such minor acts. Moreover, even if not edible, each market leaves behind tons of organic waste that can be recycled and reintroduced to the soil as compost. But to achieve that, you need to establish a serious system. First of all, it takes expertise to make compost Even collecting the waste needs know-how and care to make sure that it is suitable for composting, and collected waste should be free of inorganic materials, plastics, and metals, even cooked food is permissible in minute amounts. Correctly made compost, on the other hand, brings life to the soil, acts as a natural fertilizer, and adds richness to the crop.

Zero-waste kitchen is the shared motto of contemporary chefs. But how much a chef can do in his or her own kitchen is limited. But if one’s vision is vast, action on a grand scale is possible. This was proved by a woman chef in Türkiye, Ebru Baybara Demir from the city of Mardin who initiated a project in Diyarbakır that is now spreading to many provinces and districts across the country. I got to know Ebru in 2000 before she even opened her first restaurant. Back then, she used to organize special catering for foreign groups visiting Mardin in historical places such as the Kasımiye Medrese. At that time, I was the director of the World Bank Cultural Heritage Project for the country, and we were collaborating with UNDP in order to have Mardin accepted as a project component. We would showcase the efforts of Ebru to the World Bank missions as a potential women entrepreneur who could be successful in the future, to prove that Mardin has great potential. Indeed, Ebru has proved us right, she has accomplished great successes over time, but her last two projects surpassed them all. First, it was an agricultural project that started back in 2016, to safeguard and preserve the Sorgül variety durum wheat. This first project made Ebru to become aware of the dead-end road where agriculture in the region was heading and lead to the other project, collecting food waste in the markets and creating compost to enrich the soil.
Based on years of friendship, I called Ebru and asked all about both projects. She explained that everything started when she was struggling to revive the Sorgül wheat. She saw the pitfalls of the conventional agriculture that was introduced decades ago to the region, introducing newly developed hybrid varieties to replace old heirloom varieties, which are now dominating the region’s agriculture. The quest for greater yield created a vicious cycle that led to excessive irrigation, use of pesticides and artificial fertilizer, and as result, a decrease in water resources and pollution and impoverishment of the soil. The percentage of valuable organic matter in the soil that feeds the crop gradually decreases, in short, the soil gets poorer, and in a sense, desertification commences. To supplement the lack of nutrients in the soil, comes in more irrigation and more fertilizers. With excess irrigation, the water attracts pests, which comes in the need for spraying pesticides. This is truly a vicious cycle.

Seeing the situation Ebru thought of the other project she had in mind but kept at bay. She was deeply disappointed by the amount of waste created at the neighborhood markets, she was always thinking of the possibility to make compost, but how? When recycled properly, it would be a valuable resource to enrich impoverished soil. It would also be a great model for a circular economy. But of course, to implement such a project you need the support of the public administration, local authorities and a brigade of volunteers. Ebru decided to focus on Diyarbakır where the numbers were alarming and appealed to the authorities to receive support. There is incoming 100 tons of fruits and vegetables to the Diyarbakır wholesale market every single day. There are about 10 neighborhood markets that provide fresh produce for the 2,5 million population. An average of 3 tons of waste per market is produced, summing up to 25-30 tons of waste, of which 10-12 % are still in good condition. With the help of the local municipalities, they opened a food bank where still edible food was distributed to the needy, transformed into daily meals, or used in making pickles, jams, compotes, tomato pastes, etc. But there was still organic matter that needed to be used.

Here stepped in academic support from experts. Another important element is project traceability, a measurable system that can be replicated as a model. Every step taken in the project was documented by academics and agricultural and environmental engineers. Environmental Engineer Eda Dalgılıç Çetinkaya, Agricultural Engineer Gökhan Sivaslı participated in the project; Prof. Dr. Barış Çallı from Marmara University Environmental Engineering Department, Prof. Dr. Şule Orman from Akdeniz University, Faculty of Agriculture and Prof. Dr. Binnaz Zeynep Zaimoğlu from Çukurova University gave support. The compatibility of the compost with the soil has been tested in laboratories accredited by the Ministry of Agriculture. 330 tons of compost obtained from 1100 tons of waste was shared with the farmers with the help of local directorates of Agriculture. The result was impressive: Irrigation fell to one-third, and pesticide use to one-fifth.
The whole project turned out to be the joint effort of local MPs, regional governmental administration, local municipalities, the indispensable academics and hundreds of volunteers, and the success came from bringing together different disciplines, public and civil initiatives, beyond political preferences, now the model applied in 52 municipalities in 13 provinces. On June 23, the leading team presented their project at the

Grand National Assembly of Türkiye. Recently the story of Ebru was followed by the HBO MAX television crew to be featured as part of their series “Zero Waste Chef”, hopefully very soon, the whole world will be able to watch her story an example that can be modeled and reproduced all over the world. Treasure came from the garbage, with strength coming from unity, it was just an idea to start with, but now it is a great hope to make the soil rich again.