Transcript of EP 193 – Aydan Connor on Rethinking Food Systems

The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Aydan Connor. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.

Jim: Today’s guest is Aydan Connor. Aydan is a professional craft brewer with a strong interest in our food systems. As regular listeners know, we talk about food systems from time to time on the Jim Rudd show. So welcome, Aydan.

Aydan: Thank you. Thank you for having me, Jim.

Jim: Yeah. Talk a little bit about craft brewing. How long have you been doing that?

Aydan: I’ve been doing it for about eight years now. I’ve brewed at various scales. The first place that I was brewing at was technically like a nano brewery, so I was essentially brewing 10 gallons at a time for a very thirsty public that was constantly frustrated that I was running out of beer. At this point I’m actually at a regional craft brewery, which, it’s kind of like the larger scale on the craft scene. So we do wider distribution, we deal with contracts for brewing different kinds of beverages, everything from seltzer to wine to I make hundreds of gallons of pickle brine for one of the things that we make. Yeah, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

But yeah, it’s been interesting because in the time that I’ve been a part of the industry, I’ve been able to see it evolve in terms of the technologies that are available, the kinds of businesses that have grown out from the initial stages of craft beer. And definitely gave me a different kind of perspective, a background, almost like a back of house perspective on the food system.

Jim: Well, it’s always good. Now, it’s interesting. I’ve always been a beer drinker, started out my career in my hometown. You were either a Budweiser man or a Schlitz man, and I was a resolute Budweiser man. Probably until I was 35, 90% of the beer I drunk in my life was Budweiser.

Aydan: Fair enough.

Jim: And then gradually started developing somewhat more elevated tastes. Around 1990, I think I got into the craft brew scene. There was a fair bit in the DC area where I was living at the time. They weren’t a lot, but it was that first little pop in the micro brewery scene. Also, oddly, one of my business partners was an advisor to Jim Koch at Sam Adams, and he was actually on the original tasting panel for the original Sam Adams. So I did have little Sam Adams back in the mid eighties when he and I were working together.

But it’s interesting, over the last number of years, my wife and I do have an investment in a local mid-size craft brewery. We also have an investment in a small, but very excellent cidery, so we remain interested in this as a category. But my own tastes have kind of moved on. I found that the craft brews have just gotten too extreme, an awful lot of them. The alcohol contents are 7%, pickle fucking brine, fruit in the goddamn beer, what the fuck’s all this shit, right? So I’ve gone back old school, about 90% of the beer I drink now is German beer, typically from Bavaria. Which is made by the purity laws, only three things allowed in it, barley, water and yeast, I think. That’s it, right?

Aydan: That’s a… Sorry, go ahead.

Jim: Yeah, go ahead.

Aydan: Yeah, it’s funny. So the Reinheitsgebot actually had to be modified when they discovered the existence of yeast. They had originally only had water, multigrain, so typically barley, but they also allowed malted wheat as well, and hops, but those three-

Jim: Oh yeah, I forgot hops.

Aydan: Yeah, so those three [inaudible 00:03:41]-

Jim: The other reason I like the German beers is they’re light on the hops, especially the southern German beers. The Bavarian beers, there’s a little hops in them, but they’re not heavy on the hops. Even if you go over the border into the Czech Republic, can go over and get the classic pilsners, which I also like, like Budvar, which was the original Budweiser. And that’s actually a really good full-bodied beer, but it’s more hopsy than the Bavarian. But I like those two.

So yeah, these days, unfortunately, it’s about an hour or a 45 minute drive over the mountain to a store that’s got a fairly good selection of German beer, so I go over there every couple of months, buy four or five cases, and that’s mostly where… Last night, my wife and I went out to dinner, we did drink some local craft beer. It was a nice, full-bodied brown ale, but I’m kind of done with IPAs. It’s like California Cabernets, they used to be 12% alcohol, now they’re 15 and a half, 16. These IPAs, they used to be 5%, now they’re 6.7 and 14 bucket loads of hops in them.

Aydan: Yeah, yeah. Well, it’s unfortunate too, because this kind of extremification of all of the beer styles is something that does have environmental impacts as well. We make a lot of hazy IPAs at the brewery where I am, and you wouldn’t believe just the pounds and pounds and pounds of hops that we dump into each one of these beers. It’s basically a form of waste all the way across the board. If you consider how much water is actually required to grow the hops in the first place, that’s a huge level of the waste that’s going into, or resource use that’s going into growing those hops. And then the processing itself, they have to have these massive processing facilities, and then we dump them into these beers. Just think of it in terms of the price point, which was fair enough as far as a small business concern. But I cringe when I watch all these hops basically going down the drain, after their use.

Jim: That’s a shame, yeah. And frankly, I do sometimes wonder if all this hops is really because people like it, or is it a macho thing? “I’ve got a 5 billion bitterness rating,” right? There’s always some of that in any kind of product that becomes sort of semi elite, right?

Aydan: Oh yeah, yeah, for sure. It’s almost like it is a competition to be able to outdo other brewers as far as how much flavor can we pack into this beer? Is the idea. What kind of crazy stuff are we going to be able to do with this? We actually had a contract to make a beer that, not kidding, had pudding in it. They had us put pudding in it.

Jim: Vile. It’s funny, my journey to German beers has also gotten me to appreciate Budweiser again, because Budweiser is like a cheap, watered down version of good German or Czech beer. It is fairly straightforward. It doesn’t have a bunch of shit in it, and it’s perfectly drinkable. So in a pinch, I’d definitely go back to my roots. I’d rather drink Budweiser than most craft beers these days, but I would prefer a Czech or a German beer.

Aydan: Yeah, there’s a big connection there as far as the brewing history, the beer history behind that, the style, similarity. The difference when it comes to American macro lagers, is that they tend to have what are called adjuncts in them. So they don’t just have the barley and the hops and the water and the yeast, they usually also have flaked rice or flaked corn. Which is a practice that was originally started just because of the cost savings that you can obtain from using those adjuncts as opposed to the barley.

Malting barley is actually a very high grade of grain to try to grow, so they have extremely high standards when you go into a malting facility. They have a laboratory testing that is conducted before any malt is received into the facility at all, to be able to make sure that they don’t have any kind of… I think it’s ergot is the big one that they look for.

Jim: Oh yeah. Yup.

Aydan: But they test for all sorts of stuff, basically. So it’s not infrequent for grain to be rejected from a malting facility, so it’s a high risk crop for farmers to try to grow.

Jim: Yeah, it’s interesting. When we were driving around Ireland, we noticed that half the farmland in Ireland’s growing barley, right? Because I think Guinness is like 5% of the Irish GDP, it’s something crazy like that.

Aydan: Not surprising.

Jim: Anyway, well let’s move on. A reason we decided to get together and chat a little bit is not beer, as much as I like beer and to talk about it, but rather Aydan’s interest in our food system, more broadly construed. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about how you became interested in the bigger systematics of food from this particular point of view from inside the beast?

Aydan: My original interest in food is just as a food consumer, but-

Jim: We all start there.

Aydan: Right. And I’ve always been interested in nature environmentalism. It’s something that’s compelled me since I was very young. It’s not something that was granted to me from my parents, they didn’t share my concerns. But what was interesting for me is to see that, even with beer as a product which is essentially fermented for shelf stability, you still find dynamics in production and distribution of beer where you end up with beer old enough that it actually has to be thrown out. So to me, this was so perplexing to see over and over again, and even in the small places where I was brewing, you would find this dynamic recurring over and over again. I would try to point it out to the owners and say, “Hey, maybe we should scale back production on this or that? Or maybe we should consider eliminating this style or this recipe in particular because it tends to end up being wasted, and so maybe we should not make that so much?”

And a lot of times what ended up happening is the answer I would get was, “Well, there’s a couple of guys at the bar who come in and they just won’t buy any other beer other than that particular one, so we have to keep it on tap for this handful of customers.” And to me, this is like a microcosm of the dynamic of the food system overall. We have this obsession with the idea that every single individual consumer should be able to walk into a grocery store at any given moment, and have access to any particular food item that they feel like, regardless of the season, regardless of locality, regardless of any other factors, whether or not it’s closer to spoilage.

Basically the food system as is, has adjusted by pricing in the waste instead of trying to address the waste itself. So for me, a lot of my interest in terms of addressing food waste overall had to do with trying to imagine, like with beer alone, if I were to try to structure a facility, structure a way of selling and distributing beer such that it minimized the waste, what would that look like? So over the years, this has just slowly evolved into something that was much bigger than just considering what to do with beer, but also what to do with combining, essentially food and beverage production to distribution, to be able to minimize the amount of waste across the board.

Jim: The amount of waste is non-trivial. Could you tell us a little bit about how much food is wasted in our food system?

Aydan: The estimates vary depending on country to country. The first thing to point out is that this is not simply a United States only, big, bad consumerist culture issue. This is actually something that crosses into the UK, Germany, France. Australia is one of the worst in terms of food waste. And essentially the range is between 30 to 50%, are the estimates. This is not factoring in the kinds of things that people think of are like, “Oh, this is just from scraps,” or whatever. No, this is finished food. This is food that is ready to be consumed, about 30 to 50% goes into the trash. And now what’s interesting about-

Jim: How about during the supply chain, how much waste is there there? I know in poorer countries sometimes as much as half of it gets eaten by mice and rats, and lost, and spoiled, and that kind of stuff. Do you have ideas on how much waste there is in the production chain?

Aydan: Now, when I was looking into this, I was actually surprised to see that the level of waste in the production stream itself is actually lower than you might expect. Whereas what you see is that the massive amounts of waste end up happening in grocery stores and actually in home refrigerators. So that that 50%, so approximately half of the food that is wasted, is food that’s spoiling in home refrigerators, and the other half of the food that’s being wasted is from restaurants and grocery stores. So that dynamic to me tells me that there’s a huge mismatch between what people actually want to consume and what they are consuming.

Now, the other interesting stat that I’ve come across is that apparently 60% of the food consumed in the United States, falls under the category of a fourth tier level of food processing. Now, when you think of fourth, there’s a system that was introduced in 2009, referred to as a NOVA classification for food processing. And it was meant to help to be a little bit more specific about what do we mean by food processing, there’s a lot of different ways that we process and don’t process our food. So the fourth tier is ultra processed food, which actually has the added flavors, colors, and preservatives that are typical of shelf stable foods. Foods that are meant to be packaged and then sit on a grocery store shelf for an indeterminate amount of time.

Jim: Forever, right? Forever.

Aydan: Yeah.

Jim: Cheetos or something like that, right?

Aydan: Right. Right, right, and so if you consider 60% of the food is that kind of food, and then-

Jim: Oh, that’s interesting. So the loss rate in the stuff that’s not, must be astronomical.

Aydan: Yes, yes.

Jim: Were you able to actually get any data on that, of the stuff that’s not designed to last for 200 years and through a nuclear winter, what percentage of that is wasted? But if you run the numbers in my head, if you say it’s 40% and it’s all in the 40%, it’s got to be most of it’s probably wasted.

Aydan: Most of it. Most of it, yes. So the big conclusion that I have arrived at, my big hypothesis at this point is that in today’s world, in today’s society, we require processed food. And the big issue at hand if you accept that, is how are we processing food, and how are we distributing food to maximize how healthful it is and to minimize the environmental impact of that food system? And as far as I can tell, everything about the dynamics of the distribution of food at this scale is going to constantly push our food in the direction of that fourth tier level of processing. Unfortunately we are dealing with a perishable product, and so the more disconnects that we have between what I would think of as metabolic communities, and the actual environment in which they live, the more we’re going to see this dynamic of fourth tier food processing.

So my goal in terms of the system that I’m trying to design is to try to create what I’m referring to as unintentional communities, which are geographically located within proximity, and are really about trying to maximize the communal freedom of choice when it comes to the food supply. Right now, people don’t have that. Like I talk with my mother who lives in Provo, Utah, which is a big college town. You would think that there’s all sorts of options when it comes to food there, but the grocery store, which is in a short drive of her, is abysmal. She’s never satisfied with the food there. The produce is always terrible, but what is she going to do? What other option does she have? For people at her position, she just has to make do with what’s being offered to her.

And I don’t think that she’s unusual in that, I think there’s a dynamic that repeats a lot, at least across the United States, where these big grocery store chains set up shop, and you just have to accept whatever they have on the shelves, and make do with that. So there’s some communities, like some regions you’ll find a bigger small scale farming community. So there’s certain areas of the United States where people may be listening to this and thinking, “Well, I got all sorts of CSAs and the farmer’s markets and places that I get to go to pick my food,” and that’s great. But when you start considering that as an alternative, the issue that I see is that these farmers are being worked down to the bone. Farmers who are trying to do that small scale and trying to do a straight to farmer’s market, CSA style distribution, it’s such a huge burden on them to be able to manage both the planning and growing of the food, as well as the distribution, marketing, sales of the food as well.

Jim: Yeah, we know where we live here in the Shenandoah Valley, and then I also have a farm to the west here. There are a lot of people working to try to be a more local food chain, but you are right, they work their asses off. And if you actually tabulate all the hours they put in, it’s not entirely clear to me they’re making much more than a minimum wage, and taking a bunch of risk on top of it. And it’s funny you mentioned this because my daughter and son-in-law identified this about seven years ago, and they tried to put together just a micro distribution network for these people. Math didn’t work, we never launched it. I was the numbers guy, seeing could this work? And the answer was, you’re slicing the salami too thin and there’s something systemically wrong with the system.

One of the things I identified, I learned a lot more about the food systems from this exercise, is that these direct, farm to table food systems, CSAs, farmer’s markets, et cetera, end up costing the consumer two and a half or three times what the equivalent food would cost at Walmart. Of course, it’s not really the equivalent because it’s better, but a pound of lettuce and a pound of lettuce, it’s going to cost you two and a half or three times more to get it from the CSA than it would from Walmart. That’s okay for the top 10% of income makers in America, but for the mass of people, that kind of huge increase in the price of their provisions is really a tough sell. So it’s sort of a luxury good today, it’s not an actual solution to the food system problem anyway. So that’s one thing. Second, I wanted go back to, did I hear you say you were advocating for a diet of Cheetos and canned pork and beans? The amount of waste would be so much lower.

Aydan: Right, right. No, right, so that’s [inaudible 00:21:04]-

Jim: I didn’t think that’s what you meant, but one could infer that from what you said.

Aydan: Yeah, absolutely. Right, so that’s the big issue. The question is if you can design your distribution network such that you minimize the time that is between the farm and the delivery to the ultimate consumer, you can avoid all sorts of processing requirements that otherwise would need to take place.

So, in order to minimize the amount of processing, that time between the farm and the table needs to be minimized as well. So when I’m talking about processing, for the most part, we’re talking about essentially prep to cook type processing. This is not too far removed from services like Blue Apron or HelloFresh and places like that. They typically will design recipes that they then put together the exact amount of ingredients that you need to be able to prepare it. And then you take those ingredients and you cook it fresh, at home. The concept behind that is basically it’s a win-win-win because you’re getting fresher food in the first place, you’re minimizing the amount of time that you have to devote to actually making the meal, and making the meal is streamlined because they’re doing some handholding for you.

So a lot of the processing is just going to be something along those lines. But I think in the long run, what needs to happen in terms of supporting small scale farming, is that we also need to have small scale processing. That’s really the bottom line of it. So if you’re going to have a decentralized farming system, then you also need a decentralized processing system. And to me, that is the big missing link in all of this, is that we’ve been constantly trying to connect farmers directly with consumers, when that is just not where our society is at this time. We’re too far removed from the skills and the resource requirements to be able to facilitate that.

Now, when it comes to the food cost itself, one of the things that I feel strongly, is that if we were able to funnel food and beverage through the same facility and make this into a communal network, that you could use the extremely high profit margins on those kind of extras that people might purchase. Like say we have a beer CSA in addition to a food CSA, that beer CSA can help to soften the required cost from the customer for food, if that makes sense. So those who have the excess can spend it in the same place as people who do not necessarily have the funds to be able to afford that high of a quality of food.

Jim: Now, it’s interesting, some things like that started to form up in our area during Covid. There became a kind of joint CSA where four producers were basically joining together and you’d come on Fridays and get your box, and you’d get stuff from all four of them. One of them was a cidery, so you’d get a bottle of cider if you had checked the box that you wanted the cider, and that was cool. Another one was a chicken razor, another was a greens kind of thing, lettuce, that kind of stuff, various salad greens. The guy was really a brilliant… You could be a brilliant artiste of salad greens as it turns out, and this guy was. And then the fourth was a diversified vegetable farmer. So I don’t know what their backroom deal was amongst them, but certainly the profit margin on the cider was a hell of a lot higher than the profit margin on green beans was. Whether they were cross-subsidizing each other, I don’t know.

But let’s also talk about the issue of price because again, when I talk to people in the local ag market movement, they’re always frustrated by the fact that Americans pay so little for their food, right? In fact, I dug up some data this morning. Back in 1961, Americans spent about 19% of their disposable income on food. In 2021 it was about 10%. And further, food expenditure away from home, i.e. restaurants, et cetera, has remained remarkably consistent at around 4%, 4.5% since 1961 to the present day. Hasn’t changed much, amazingly. While the at-home food part of the budget has gone from 14% down to 6% approximately, in 2021. So we are paying a lot less for our food on a relative basis compared to all the other shit we buy, than we used to.

Now on the other hand, this is where capitalism and the multipolar trap gets out of control. Where, if you’re in a category selling corn flakes and you want to pay your people twice the wages, and pay the farmers more for good, high quality, organic corn, your cornflake’s going to be twice as expensive and nobody’s going to buy them, right? So unfortunately late stage financialized capitalism has produced this, on one hand, remarkable thing, that this is the best fed people on Earth. In fact, as we know, over half of us, including me, are overfed, right? Because the food machine has been so optimized by money on money return, that it could produce a shitload of food for a small amount of money. And that’s even including all the waste you talked about, so that’s even more amazing. But if you really wanted to be able to produce CSA quality food for everybody, probably the price would go up, maybe by a factor of two or close to it, and we’d be back to 1961 wallet share of 18 or 19%. What do you think about that?

Aydan: Oh yeah, it’s a serious issue. I do get frustrated sometimes when people start talking about the food system and they don’t consider just how desperate some people already are when it comes to their finances, and then to consider, “Oh well, it’s just going to be a little bit more expensive.” Well, maybe just a little bit more expensive for you, but it might be cost prohibitive for most other people. So my main feeling is that there’s just so much glut in the system as it is, that I do feel strongly that if we were to create these networks that are relatively local, you’re going to make such a more efficient use of all of the resources that you are using, that you would be able to offer your service for a much lower price, because you’re not pricing in for the levels of waste.

That goes for the individual consumer as well. So even though people are only spending so little on their food as it is, if they’re still wasting about half of what they are spending, if they aren’t wasting all of that, then they could get higher quality and waste less, and maybe break even is what I’m hoping. I’m hoping that there’s a way to make this so that it’s efficient enough that the additional quality that you’re getting-

Jim: You get it for free, that’d be great.

Aydan: Yeah, you get it for free.

Jim: Well, I will tell you, it’s not the way it is today, right? If you go to the farmer’s market, you sign up for a CSA, it’s going to cost you two to two and a half times what it costs you Walmart, three times for some things. What would you see that’s needed in the area of infrastructure, to make it efficient enough so that small, local producers can basically do literal farm to table at the household level, at a price that’s comparable? I always said 25% above Walmart would be a mass phenomenon. You’re not going to get the welfare mothers, but you’re going to get a lot of middle-class people at Walmart plus 25%. What is needed in terms of systematics to make that happen?

Aydan: Really it’s about coordination. I think we have a coordination problem when it comes to the planning that farmers do for what they’re going to be growing, and the people who are actually going to be purchasing and consuming the food. It’s really about just creating a network where all of the planning and execution is happening within what I refer to as a metabolic community. There’s four layers of choice that would go into it when it comes to the coordination. The first thing is that I think that any systemic, decentralized system will probably start with some kind of a community constitution. That would lay the groundwork as far as how all of the parts of the system are going to work together. So every community can decide the nitty gritty details for themselves.

And that, to me, would include things like… I think that there should be, essentially groups of people who are making decisions about the pay rate of people who are working within the system. So if you’re thinking geographically, you can almost sidestep minimum wage concerns and things like that, by making agreements about this in the constitution itself. That’s just one example of that. You could also have overarching land use standards that are a part of a constitution, in that way. So you could say, “All right, well absolutely zero glyphosate, none. None. None in the system, zero.” Or you could say, “Absolutely no plastic packaging, no packaging of that sort in the system at all.”

That’s the highest layer, highest level of decision making and coordination. Then the next level down, and this is where you’re connecting the farmers really directly with the community, would be to establish yearly crop contracts with farmers. To me, there needs to be some kind of system to be able to help people who are interested in farming, to actually become farmers, without having to do the marketing and selling themselves. And a contract that actually determines a price per pound, an agreement in terms of how much the community is going to essentially pay for the farmer to plant in the first place. And some kind of a stipulation as far as a substitute for crop insurance, essentially, would be built into a seasonal contract like that as well. To me-

Jim: I’m going to mention that, that farming is a damn risky business and dependent on rainfall and pests, and all kinds of stuff. And further, if you know anything about the insurance business, you need some scale to make insurance work, and particularly you need uncorrelated risk. For instance, if you had the equivalent of a crop insurance program in a local region, say in a county, there’s going to be a high correlated risk around both weather and pests, so that might be a problem. You might have to build a higher level abstraction to spread the risk over a wider weather and pest system. I think that’s an important point.

Aydan: Yeah, that’s a really good point, definitely. I think that there’s a network of networks that I’m picturing, more like a web when it comes to this. So one of the things that I do like to say as a heuristic, is don’t let the perfect be the enemy of your food.

Jim: That’s a good one, I like that.

Aydan: That’s really what’s driving a lot of what this system ends up looking like. That’s part of why, for example, I’m trying to point out to people that we might actually need food processing, for example.

Jim: Oh, we certainly do. For instance, we have in our local community, very remote, lowest population density east of the Mississippi River. About 10 years ago, a group of us, my wife and I included, came together and established a local slaughterhouse, for instance, right? And there’s been some talk, from time to time, about other kinds of local food processing. Some of these great farm wives have these amazing stews and soups, I thought if you could find some way for them to supervise or provide their recipes to a little packing plant in the area, that would be a hell of a thing, right? And they’d be shelf stable to your [inaudible 00:34:38]. If you bought all the vegetables, put them in your crisper, 50% of them are going to go bad. Unfortunately, soup, you can use some pretty grungy shit to make soup, but if it’s already been processed and canned in a glass jar, it’s going to be shelf stable for a couple of years at least. And so there some of the waste goes away.

So I’m with you there. Of course, that used to be much more common. In fact, in the area just north of here, there was a vast tomato packing industry. And I was surprised to find that up until the sixties, there was dozens, maybe hundreds of small canneries that actually ran canning lines and made their own branded tomatoes. Some of them were bespoke where they’d put somebody else’s label on it, and there was actually a huge variety of canned tomatoes back in the fifties and sixties that came from the Northern Shenandoah Valley. So it is possible, but unfortunately the economics point the other way, because let’s talk about time to market and freshness of produce. Who’s got the best produce of the big chains? Costco, it turns out. You buy stuff… My wife’s really good at keeping an eye on this. Whose produce lasts the longest? If you buy a head of lettuce or if you buy a avocado or something, whose will last the longest? But also how close are they to ripe also? It’s an interesting [inaudible 00:36:03].

Costco does the best job of anybody, and they’re huge and vast. So this is a case where economies of scale turn out to solve that problem, and it’s going to be a real uphill fight against friction and economics, and everything else, to get that level of speed to market. I don’t know how the hell they do it. Getting stuff from California to Virginia in two days or three days, it can’t be cheap, but their prices are lower than anybody else’s too. So scale, unfortunately, is one of the ingredients to solve these problems. And if we go back to local, I don’t know. I don’t think we’re going to do it for 10% of the wallet’s what I’m saying.

But I do like your idea of a constitution, very much like our game B idea of a proto B, where we decide that this community has a rule. As you said, no glyophosphate, no GMOs. Actually I think GMOs are probably okay, but let’s just say that you could say no GMOs. There’s arguments on both sides. Maybe we could have a series of agreements, but you could also have an agreement that most of the food’s going to be grown locally and we’re going to dedicate 10 to 15% of our labor force to growing it. That would be radically different than today, where it’s 1% or less actually, in the farming, another half a percent in processing. So there’s a way around it, but that’s within a membrane. You can do that within a membrane, but until everybody lives in a membrane, the people outside the membrane are going to be subject to the coercive force of money on money return, financialized economics, and you’re going to end up with Costco being able to do a better job than your loosely coupled network of local producers.

Aydan: Sure, I mean and places like Costco, this is… Again, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of your food. If they’ve got a system that’s working well, then I don’t have a problem with that necessarily. I do worry, when it comes to systems like that, I start to wonder about labor up the chain, like what are they paying people to be able to do the labor, to be able to get the food at that price, and distribute it at that scale and at that rate? That’s one of my big concerns about something like that.

Aside from that, in theory I don’t have an issue with the mass distribution if it’s actually working. I also think that it brings resilience to any localized system if they remain in contact with a distributed system. So I think that a big concern to me would be people attempting to do a strictly local food system. I think there’s just inherent risk to that, just like you were saying in terms of the concerns about having, essentially, a localized crop insurance program, that you’re not diversifying the risk.

Jim: You’re not going to grow very many oranges in northern Minnesota, I can tell you that.

Aydan: Right, right, right. So I think that there’s a way that we can get the best of both worlds, where I think we need to reconsider what we consider local. We exist at multiple scales at this point. Yes, we have the local level, and I think that when it comes to perishable items, it makes the most sense to be able to try to keep those items local. But I think that we can try to grow towards something that feels more like a spice trade. Where we have foods that are not necessarily capable of being grown in a local area, being distributed there to add in variety, to add in flavor and diversity into the food supply. I think if you were to do something like a 70% local to 30% distributed, I think that’s a good ratio to try to shoot for within any particular membrane. I think the isolationism of trying to go a hundred percent is a problem in itself.

Jim: Yeah, and I will say that’s a game B principle as well. The membranes need to be semi-permeable and it becomes then a cultural issue on how much import and export you want and in what categories? As you say, you might, for instance say, “Anything that we can grow locally at reasonable productivity, we will,” but we’re not going to try to grow oranges in a greenhouse in northern Minnesota because it’s nuts, right?

Aydan: Yeah, it’s more wasteful.

Jim: The amount of energy that you’d produce would be crazy. Let’s revisit an item you’d mentioned in passing, which again, is a systematic result of late stage financialized capitalism, which is the squeeze on wages in the production chain. Again, something I happen to know about. When we first moved here, bought our farm 1989, a couple of years later, I was invited to invest in a turkey processing co-op where a big firm was getting out of the turkey processing in the region, and agreed to sell the plant, a huge plant to the farmers who produced all the turkeys. And they got together and they invited some friends to come in.

I ended up not investing in it for different reasons. Turned out it would’ve been a good investment. But I did learn what the wages were and they were paying those people pretty good in those days. And they were all, at the time, 1990, ’91, native born Americans, about half black and half white. And I think they were making 10 or $11 an hour, which in 1989 was pretty good. That would’ve been about four times minimum wage. Now, 30 years later, they’re paying them about… Well at least pre-Covid, I don’t know, the wages may have gone up, they were paying them 13 or $14 an hour, which is half, in real terms what they were making in 1989. And essentially 100% of them are recent immigrants from mostly Mexico and Central America.

And it’s said, I don’t know this to be a fact, that many of them are illegal, don’t know that to be a fact. But anyway, in real terms, wages have come down 50% through the ratchet of financialized capitalism. And then frankly, it’s a multipolar trap. If the other plants that make turkeys were still hiring native born American labor and paid them twice the price, their turkey would be more expensive and nobody’d buy it. So if one person goes to squeeze the labor cost to the bare minimum they possibly can by exploiting immigrants, everybody else has to respond. Again, it’s a classic coordination problem where you need to have some larger, overarching, as you called it constitution, that people agree not to do that. Because otherwise competition forces you to follow the most extreme actors in the category.

Aydan: Yeah. It’s a dynamic that I think that’s another way that the membrane can be helpful in this case. If you’re actually thinking about the wages in terms of the actual living costs of where you are geographically, I think that that’s a better way of trying to design the system. And having the direct connection between the actual costs and the price of it for the consumer, again, I think will add to the efficiency enough so that it’d be possible to be able to have those higher wages. The one thing to consider is… Because I’ve been on the production side and in the beer industry, I do think that there’s a lot of opportunity here to be able to attract more people by just making better work quality.

The larger the scale that you’re working, the more automated your job is, the less interesting it is. And one of the big concerns that I have, in particular when it comes to the animal agriculture industry, is that I think it’s terrible to expect any individual to spend the eight hours, let’s say a day, that they’re working at their job, killing animal after animal after animal, for years on end. I don’t know if that’s a really good way of structuring the labor when it comes to animal agriculture. I think if you were to reduce the scale and spread out that kind of work, people would be more likely to partake in it. And the overall quality of those jobs would increase by a huge amount.

Jim: That’s a good point. At our local slaughterhouse, there was definitely not a dedicated kill person. They’d only kill two or three animals a day, and so the actual killing might’ve taken a total of 20 minutes. And those people then went back to the line and did the cutting, and so they had a diversified job with more variety in their work. Just sitting there and shooting hogs in the head all day, that’d get old real quick.

Aydan: One after the next. I mean, there’s all sorts of statistics when it comes to the labor force, related to slaughterhouses having extremely high rates of domestic abuse. It does something to people to do that kind of work day, in and day out. I don’t have an issue with consuming animals. I think that we need to make a space to be able to have an animal agriculture industry, but it just needs a total restructuring and re-imagining of what that would actually look like.

Jim: But again, that’s going to raise the prices, unless you can magically find enough waste in the system. And I will say the slaughterhouse, there’s very little waste. That stuff is used. The scraps are sold to people to make sausages with. The bones sold to a fertilizer plant to make bone meal. The blood is sent to someplace else to make a supplement for chicken food, I think. Essentially the guts are sold to a company called Valley Protein that processes the guts and turns it into protein. God knows, I don’t want to know what it’s being used in, but there ain’t much waste at a slaughterhouse, I can tell you, from a personal experience that’s there.

Well, we’re getting up close to our time here, let’s go to the other half of the waste. We talk about the system, the distribution systems. What can people do to eliminate the waste inside their own house? Because you said half of the waste is the stuff that people throw away. Now, I know we don’t throw away anything. I bet we don’t throw away more than five or 10% of the food at our house. My wife is really astute at freezing… She often cooks bigger sets of stuff than we’re going to need to consume, and she’ll chop it up and freeze it, and then we’ll have it for lunch a couple of weeks later. Or as we were talking about nasty vegetables have gotten a little brown around the edge, throw them in a pot, throw it a chicken carcass, make some soup.

But I think she’s probably atypical in how little we waste at our house. Not to say we don’t waste some, particularly I’d say fruits that go bad. There’s not much you can do with an orange that’s gone rotten. But what are some things that you would recommend for people to reduce the waste inside the four walls in their house?

Aydan: The big thing that comes up typically, is to have a plan for the food before you buy it. If you have any particular week, you’re looking at the week ahead. Before you go to the grocery store, if you were to sit down and decide, “All right, Monday night, this, Tuesday that, Wednesday this, Thursday that, Friday this,” go down the line, make decisions about what the meals are going to be. Come up with a basically shopping inventory for what you’re going to look for at the store, and execute it. It’s as simple as that, and I’m saying that sarcastically.

Yeah, it’s extremely difficult, and this is my point about the whole thing. I think that there’s a lot of people who are like your wife when it comes to being able to plan and think ahead. And then when plans don’t come through, you have a backup plan and then you have a backup plan for your backup plan. I think that that’s fantastic when people have the skillset to be able to do that, and they have the time and energy to be able to do that. In the same way that I appreciate when people have their own home gardens, I think it’s better to have your own home garden and do your own stuff at your house if you possibly can.

But yeah, I think that the cards are stacked up against people when it comes to reducing the waste in their own house. If you can find a way to plan ahead, then do so. And if you can be creative about what you do with the stuff that’s about to go bad, then you should do so. But really, I think that… I don’t know, creating a system where the food is more fresh in the first place will do a lot of the work of preventing the food waste in the first place. Just making sure that by the time that it ends up in a refrigerator, it isn’t already past two weeks after it was harvested.

Jim: Yeah, and I will say there are some changes in the food systems that are working against that. Again, in our area, very remote, there are no grocery stores. The only place you can buy any food at all is either a country store or even worse, Dollar General, right?

Aydan: Oh yeah.

Jim: And that stuff is right at the edge of its sell by date. If you buy milk at the Dollar General, you better use it in a week or you’re done. If you buy it from the dairy, it’s an hour’s drive away to buy it straight from the dairy, shit’ll last a month easy, right? So when you get pushed into food deserts and you’re buying stuff at Dollar General, that’s the other end, I think they must be buying stuff from the big national chains, that it’s getting close to its expiration date, and then pushing it out.

So a tactic at least, is take a look at the dates on stuff. Of course you can’t do it for fresh produce because it’s not dated, but milk, you can for sure. Packaged goods, you can, I will say at Dollar General, look at your canned beans or your Rice-A-Roni, and you’d be surprised how close they are to their expiration dates. Not that those expiration dates really mean anything. That’s the other thing, I have a friend who’s a fanatic about the expiration dates and I say, “Come on now, you could easily go a year past on most of that stuff.” Things like canned beans, Rice-A-Roni, spaghetti, that shit ain’t going bad. At worse, it might taste a little funky, but you’re not even going to notice it.

Frankly, it’s a marketing scam by the producers to get you to throw it out and buy more. So for things that are inherently stable and safe, don’t be too fanatic about the expiration dates, but also look at them when you can, when you buy, to see if the channel you’re using is systematically, like Dollar General, pushing it right up to near expiration. Or it’s Costco, who’s the other extreme, you get the stuff from Costco and it’s got a long expiration date because they got a very efficient distribution channel.

Aydan: Yeah, yeah, definitely. I’m trying to think of any other tips that I would have, and definitely that’s a really big one. I think just not being as squeamish, or don’t necessarily assume that whatever that date says is accurate. I think that’s really good advice, for sure. Actually, one of the big things that that brought up for me as well, is just the issue of food safety is one of those things that I think we have the technology now to be able to reconsider how we think of food safety.

In fact, one of the types of technologies that I’ve seen come online since I became a craft brewer is we can actually take samples from the beer and place it into a desktop-sized device. It’s no larger than a one foot by two foot-sized device, which does genetic testing of the beer, to be able to test for any kind of contaminants, any kind of microbiological activity that we were not intending to have happen. And frankly, I think that those kinds of onsite testing systems would add another layer to the savings that you would have, and reduce that gap between the farm and the market somewhat. So I think more accurate, more real time food safety testing is something that we can definitely use, to be able to reduce the amount of food waste overall as well.

Jim: Yeah, I would add again, use your freezer, my wife is… And don’t think she does all the cooking, I do some percent of the cooking. She does most of it. She’s constantly freezing stuff and say, “We’ll cook double doses.” And a lot of people, you cook more than you eat, they just throw it out or feed it to the dog or something. If you actually have freezer space, we have two big freezers plus the freezer compartment in our big refrigerator. Which also allows us to do things like buy half a hog, and hunting in the fall, when I kill a couple of deer, I get those processed. I used to process them myself before I got to be too old and arthritic to be able to do that shit in cold weather. So you put in 50 pounds of deer meat in the freezer, you don’t waste any of it. It doesn’t go bad. So I would encourage people to think about their freezer as a strategic resource.

Aydan: Actually, I think we should be looking at freezers as food pricing on the local scale as well, before the consumer. It’s one of those engineering ideas that I’ve had when it comes to all of this, is that we could definitely use some technology that avoids the plastic use in the frozen fruits and vegetables that we have. And the main idea would be basically bulk freezers that have nitrogen flushing capacity. That’s my big, grand idea as far as how to try to maximize local food sources. We’ll see who’s-

Jim: Tell me a little bit more about this, it sounds interesting. When you say nitrogen flushing, what do you mean? That the freezer itself would have a flush of nitrogen to kill any bacteria in there?

Aydan: Yes. The idea is like nitrogen is used in a lot of food packaging as an inert gas. Oxygenation is one of the primary sources of food spoilage. That’s the thing that will change the color of the food, that changes the flavor of the food. Everything reacts with oxygen, so most food processing involves the reduction or elimination of oxygen inside the package. Now, my thinking is that nitrogen is… There are systems, like literally any draft system that you encounter at any brewery or bar may have a device in the back of house, which is literally pulling from the atmosphere, separating out nitrogen and compressing it for use in the draft system.

Jim: Yeah, don’t they have nitro beer with nitrogen used in the process somehow?

Aydan: Yeah, they do that as well. That’s not as common. It’s one of those… It’s it a good inert gas for things like wine packaging, because it actually takes an extremely high amount of pressure to be able to dissolve nitrogen into a liquid, into any liquid, especially relative to CO2. So it’s actually used in draft systems for long draw systems, so systems that require higher pressure to-

Jim: To push the stuff through because it won’t go into-

Aydan: To push it through.

Jim: Yeah, it won’t go in the solution.

Aydan: Yeah, exactly. But what’s cool is that if you were to use that same technology in, let’s say… I’m just picturing basically a set of drawers that have gasket seals around them. So you could fit, let’s say a pallet full of prepped vegetables inside of one single drawer. If you were to have a system that basically worked, using two basically one-way valves, you’d have the nitrogen be able to come in and flush out any of the ambient air after every time that that drawer was opened and then closed again.

To me, this would be a way of basically reducing… And I have a similar idea when it comes to the packaging as well. Reusable packaging could be structured so that you have mostly stainless, you might have glass, something along those lines, have a lid. And then one-way valves on either end so that every single meal, basically as it was prepped, could go into one of these containers. It could get nitrogen flushed so that it’s basically as good a food packaging as you would ever get. I mean, we deal with gaskets and seals like this all the time in my work, which is why it came to mind. And I think if you could do that, you could literally just bypass the use of plastics in food packaging completely.

Jim: That’s a very clever idea. I like that. I don’t buy it’s going to work at the container level, but the freezer or the drawer level, that makes sense. I can’t imagine people hooking a hose up to their little Tupperware and flushing it in nitrogen.

Aydan: No, no, no, no. I’m picturing this on the processing side.

Jim: Oh, I see. Okay.

Aydan: Yeah. So as meals were being prepped to cook, basically as it’s packaged in these packages, this would be a way for that to extend somewhat, the shelf life or shelf stability of what’s inside of that package. At that point, I might as well just mention briefly that part of that system would be a internal distribution system. What I’m picturing is basically within any geographic region where it’s like within 10 minutes drive, you might have what would essentially be like a food shed. So you’d have a little standalone building, very small, and basically all it would be, would be a walk-in and a vestibule in front of it. You might have a camera to be able to do security on the access in and out of there. But the walk-in would have a series of lockers, and if you wanted to go pick up your food, you know where you need to go. You’d go in, pick it up, then when you are coming back to pick up your next meal, you would just return the container, basically. So yeah, it would basically be a closed loop distribution system to be able to…

I don’t know, in my mind, if you have a way of avoiding all the clutter in people’s refrigerators in the first place, that might help a lot for reducing food waste. I think delivering food on someone’s doorstep is fine as a quick fix, but I don’t think that really is a long-term solution when it comes to food distribution.

Jim: Yeah, particularly as we start moving to smaller houses, which we’re going to need to do as we confront climate change. Typical 2,200 square foot American suburban house probably ends up, someday, at a 700 to a 1,000 square feet. And by the way, I had a guest on my show, Jason Mock on episode 131, I just looked it up. And he actually is building those things, basically where you look like big safe deposit boxes. You go in and the CSAs, they have the digital combinations on the CSAs, could put the food in there. And they’re not frozen, but they’re refrigerated and they have to be near power. And he puts them on parking lots at Walmart and things like… Not at Walmart. Walmart wouldn’t let them, but like at banks, places like that where it’s near a power pole. I don’t know, frankly, I should check back in with him, but if you want to, check him out. Reach out to him and ask him how that’s going.

Aydan: Yeah, it’s funny you brought that up because that was an episode that I listened to and I got really excited because I already had this idea, and then I heard that episode. I was like, “Oh wow, somebody’s already doing something that’s adjacent to this.” And it sounded like he was already having a lot of success with it, the time that he was-

Jim: He’s a maniac. He’s a true innovator, full of energy. He does all this stuff and he’s a full-time farmer. I mean this guy is-

Aydan: I don’t get it.

Jim: I love this guy. He is just a very impressive character. Well, anyway, I think we’re up to our time now. I’d really like to thank Aydan Connor for a extraordinarily stimulating conversation about a lens on our food system around waste and efficiency, and multi-level coupling of networks, membranes, constitutions. And a little bit outside of what most of the people who’re involved in the conversation are talking about. So really appreciate a very fresh, and to my mind, pretty sensible point of view here.

Aydan: Thank you so much for having me, Jim. It was a pleasure to meet you and to have this chat.