Well-presented, shiny and uniformly sized apples, carrots and other fruits and vegetables are what we’ve come to expect in our local grocery store.
But it’s a perfection that does not always reflect the produce being grown on farms across the U.S., says Danielle Nierenberg, co-founder of the nongovernmental organization Food Tank.
“Food grows in the soil and is dirty and comes in all shapes and sizes, yet we’ve been trained to believe that everything is pristine and perfect. It’s part of our culture now. The grocery aisles tell our eyes one thing and we don’t realize that there is nothing bad about misshapen or imperfect-looking food.”
And many of us associate aesthetics with eating pleasure. “People think food that looks perfect tastes perfect, but that’s not the case. Ugly can be tasty and nutritious,” Nierenberg says.
It all started with the spread of refrigeration technology in the 1980s that enabled fresh fruits and vegetables to be kept chilled soon after being harvested all the way through to the grocery aisle. The ability to preserve “perfect-looking” produce over longer distances gave retailers the option to source fresh produce from further afield and so be more selective about what they would take, enabling them to set increasingly stringent quality standards.
“The result is that if you go to a grocery store in the U.S. today, you see aisles of apples all the same shape and color. It teaches kids that this is what fruit and vegetables are meant to look like,” says Evan Lutz, co-founder of the food waste company Hungry Harvest.
That culture is being reinforced by social media and the focus on immaculate, Instagram- and Pinterest-worthy meals, says Andrea Spacht, a food specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The downside to this desire for perfect fruits and vegetables is mountains of food waste.
A study in Minnesota found that up to 20 percent of most fruit and vegetable crops were too large, too small or otherwise too cosmetically compromised to meet the standards set by retail buyers, with some growers reporting losses up to 30 percent or higher. Another study in North Carolina found 42 percent of crops were left unharvested, the majority of which did not meet appearance quality standards set by buyers.
Farmers have also said they have been forced to leave crops unharvested because the prices offered by buyers for lower-quality fruit and vegetables is too low to cover the costs of harvesting, including transport and labor.
“If the price being offered by the market is too low, then sometimes the produce just sits unharvested in the field,” says Sam Thorp, who runs the fruit and vegetable farm Spade & Plow in San Martin, California.
“Retailers have realized that if fresh produce looks a certain way, it will sell better. Therefore, knowing what they are going to get from farmers is important to them, hence why they set those quality standards,” he adds.
Thorp has seen such waste firsthand, having worked on a number of farms. But after setting up his own farm business with his father, Mike, and brother Nick in 2015, they have managed to cut waste by selling not just to wholesale buyers but directly to customers.
Just this past month, a period of cold weather left the Thorps with a harvest full of blistered artichokes that they could not sell to wholesale buyers. But the local restaurants the farm sells to were more than happy to buy the artichokes, as were the farm’s veg box customers and those they sell to at farmers markets.
They might not look perfect, but the blemished artichokes taste just fine, says Thorp: “They actually taste even better as they’re a little bit sweeter and nuttier.”
Making consumers realize that ugly fruit and vegetables still taste good and are fine to eat could help significantly cut food waste, says Nierenberg. And that message doesn’t only have to come from farmers.
Spacht says there are positive signs out there of our perfection culture being challenged with TV shows such as A&E’s “Scraps,” which features chef Joel Gamoran making beautiful food with an eye toward preventing waste.
There are also a number of companies that claim to be helping reduce food waste by selling excess produce, including ugly fruit and vegetables, to consumers via doorstep delivery programs. One of those is Baltimore-based Hungry Harvest, which buys surplus food ― including fruit and vegetables that don’t meet quality standards ― from growers and wholesalers, and sells it to consumers via box subscriptions.
Critics have argued that companies like Hungry Harvest are just creating a premium market for food that would otherwise be sold for food processing or given to food banks ― and not wasted.
But Lutz told MagPost that Hungry Harvest is “not an ugly veg company” and that this only accounts for a small proportion of the produce they buy. The majority is just surplus to requirements because, for example, the farmer could not find a buyer for it. “What we sell is a full range of what farms produce rather than just the perfect food. We want people to accept food as it is.”
While the debate around ugly fruits and vegetables gains attention, it’s important to remember that wonky produce is far from the only source of food waste. A bigger problem is food wasted at home. More than 50 percent of the food that ends up in landfills in the U.S. originates from consumers.
Tackling this requires consumers to watch portion sizes and find ways to make use of foods that often get thrown out, says Nierenberg.
California-based charity Food Forward is one organization trying to tackle this. In addition to distributing unsold fruits and vegetables from wholesalers and farmers to local food banks, it runs food waste education programs in local schools, teaching students how to use foods that often get thrown out at home, such as brown bananas to make banana bread.
Ultimately, getting people to cut their food waste may come down to government action. In South Korea, a national ban on sending food to landfills and a legal requirement for residents to pay for what they throw away has led to a reduction in the amount of food wasted in people’s homes.
“It makes you aware of how much waste you’re producing,” one South Korean resident told HuffPost. Pretty much all of what is discarded is recycled into animal feed, fertilizer, biogas or bio-oil.
For Thorp, there is a much easier solution for any fruits and vegetables they have left over once they’ve sold as much ugly produce as they can. “We have a neighbor who keeps goats,” he says.
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An implantable device that produces energy using ultrasound
A team of researchers affiliated with several institutions in the Republic of Korea has developed a type of implantable device that produces energy using an external ultrasound source. In their paper published in the journal Science, the group describes their device, how it was built and how well it worked when tested on animal tissue.
The development of the pacemaker has undoubtedly saved many lives, but it also has risks for patients that have them implanted into their chests. The devices have to be replaced periodically, putting patients at risk of infection—there is also some degree of pain and irritation involved. For that reason, scientists have searched for ways to generate power inside the body, making batteries unnecessary. In this new effort, the researchers have designed a generator that produces power when exposed to an ultrasound source.
The generator designed by the researchers is a type of triboelectric generator. Such generators harvest energy from the triboelectric effect—where contact electrification occurs when two dissimilar objects touch and are then pulled apart—static electricity is an example of the triboelectric effect. The generator used by the team had two squares of material inside of it that were forced together when exposed to ultrasound. When the ultrasound signal was removed, the materials separated and a small amount of electricity was produced and captured in the generator. By repeating the process over and over in rapid succession, a constant stream of electricity was generated. The team also added other components to their device to allow for interfacing with other devices—and they had to make sure it could withstand being implanted into a living creature.
The researchers tested their generator by implanting it into some pig tissue at various depths and then firing ultrasound at it through the skin. They report that at depths of five millimeters, the generator produced electricity with a current up to 156 microamps and up to 2.4 volts. At depths of a centimeter, the generator was able to produce 98 microamps and 1.9 volts. The researchers note that if such agenerator could be used to run pacemakers and other implantable devices, patients could be spared the necessity of having to undergo surgery to have them replaced periodically.
Scientists reveal first-ever image of a black hole
Scientists on Wednesday revealed the first image ever made of a black hole, depicting its hot, shadowy edges where light bends around itself in a cosmic funhouse effect.
Assembling data gathered by eight radio telescopes around the world, astronomers created the picture showing the violent neighborhood around a supermassive black hole, the light-sucking monsters of the universe theorized by Einstein more than a century ago and confirmed by observations for decades.
It looked like a flaming orange, yellow and black ring.
“We have seen what we thought was unseeable. We have seen and taken a picture of a black hole. Here it is,” said Sheperd Doeleman of Harvard.
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Jessica Dempsey, a co-discoverer and deputy director of the East Asian Observatory in Hawaii, said it reminded her of the powerful flaming Eye of Sauron from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
Unlike smaller black holes that come from collapsed stars, supermassive black holes are mysterious in origin. Situated at the center of most galaxies, including ours, they are so dense that nothing, not even light, can escape their gravitational pull.
This one’s “event horizon” the point of no return around it, where light and matter begin to fall inexorably into the abyss is as big as our entire solar system.
Three years ago, scientists using an extraordinarily sensitive observing system heard the sound of two much smaller black holes merging to create a gravitational wave, as Albert Einstein predicted.
The new image, published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters and announced around the world in several news conferences, adds light to that sound.
Outside scientists suggested the achievement could be worthy of a Nobel Prize, just like the gravitational wave discovery.
While much around a black hole falls into a death spiral and is never to be seen again, the new image captures “lucky gas and dust” circling at just far enough to be safe and seen millions of years later on Earth, Dempsey said.
Taken over four days when astronomers had “to have the perfect weather all across the world and literally all the stars had to align,” the image helps confirm Einstein’s general relativity theory, Dempsey said.
Einstein a century ago even predicted the symmetrical shape that scientists just found, she said. “It’s circular, but on one side the light is brighter,” Dempsey said.
That’s because that light is approaching Earth.
The measurements are taken at a wavelength the human eye cannot see, so the astronomers added color to the image. They chose “exquisite gold because this light is so hot,” Dempsey said. “Making it these warm gold and oranges makes sense.”
What the image shows is gas heated to millions of degrees by the friction of ever-stronger gravity, scientists said.
And that gravity creates a funhouse effect where you see light from both behind the black hole and behind you as the light curves and circles around the black hole itself, said astronomer Avi Loeb, director of the Black Hole Initiative at Harvard. (The lead scientists in the discovery are from Harvard, but Loeb was not involved.)
The project cost $50 million to $60 million, with $26 million of that coming from the National Science Foundation.
Johns Hopkins astrophysicist Ethan Vishniac, who was not part of the discovery team but edits the journal where the research was published, pronounced the image “an amazing technical achievement” that “gives us a glimpse of gravity in its most extreme manifestation.”
He added: “Pictures from computer simulations can be very pretty, but there’s literally nothing like a picture of the real universe, however fuzzy and monochromatic.”
“It’s just seriously cool,” said John Kormendy, a University of Texas astronomer who wasn’t part of the discovery team. “To see the stuff going down the tubes, so to speak, to see it firsthand.
The mystique of black holes in the community is very substantial. That mystique is going to be made more real.”
There is a myth that says a black hole would rip you apart, but Loeb and Kormendy said the one pictured is so big, someone could fall into it and not be torn to pieces. But the person would never be seen from again.
Black holes are “like the walls of a prison. Once you cross it, you will never be able to get out and you will never be able to communicate,” Loeb said.
The first image is of a black hole in a galaxy called M87 that is about 53 million light years from Earth. One light year is 5.9 trillion miles, or 9.5 trillion kilometers. This black hole is about 6 billion times the mass of our sun.
The telescope data was gathered by the Event Horizon Telescope two years ago, but it took so long to complete the image because it was a massive undertaking, involving about 200 scientists, supercomputers and hundreds of terabytes of data delivered worldwide by plane.
The team looked at two supermassive black holes, the M87 and the one at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy. The one in our galaxy is closer but much smaller, so they both look the same size in the sky. But the more distant one was easier to take pictures of because it rotates more slowly.
“We’ve been hunting this for a long time,” Dempsey said. “We’ve been getting closer and closer with better technology.”
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