Offloading a truckload of fresh fruit into the wilderness doesn’t sound like the most environmentally friendly move, but two genius ecologists theorized that it just might save the planet. Just before the results of the daring plan were made public, however, one greedy corporation halted the life-changing experiment. Though when all seemed lost, one student set out to finish the scientists’ work — if he wasn’t too late.
Timothy Treuer was a graduate student at Princeton University who had his eyes set on greatness. He was aiming for a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, but first he needed a research topic to further his studies. Over the summer of 2013, he developed a fascination with oranges and their power to impact our planet.
Timothy heard about an environmental experiment led by husband and wife duo, Daniel Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs. There wasn’t much information on the subject aside from an exciting theory about composting the waste of orange peels and pulp. Eager to learn more, he reached out to the ecology team, unaware that he was about to make history.
Early that summer, Timothy sat down with Daniel Janzen to discuss the rather controversial experiment. While the science behind their idea was sound, they ran into unforeseen complications. Daniel recounted the story, starting with his and his wife’s groundbreaking idea.
In the late ’90s, Daniel and Winnie were researchers and technical advisers for the Guanacaste Conservation Area in Costa Rica. During that time, they observed parts of the protected forest slowly dying despite heavy government protection. Their concerns growing, both experts agreed that something needed to be done.
The couple proposed a daring solution: perhaps a massive amount of compost would bring the forest back from the brink. Since the method of composting wasn’t a new idea in the slightest, Costa Rican authorities gave them clearance for the experiment without a second thought. The two geniuses even had a unique supplier to bring in the compost waste.
In 1997, they struck a deal with juice company Del Oro. In exchange for free dumping of their waste, the company would give back the northern portion of the land they took from the Guanacaste Conservation Area — it was a brilliant deal. A year later, 12,000 tons of orange waste were dumped onto degraded land. Winnie and Daniel were thrilled, but then came bad news.
A rival juice company, TicoFruit, immediately reacted to the dumping with a lawsuit, arguing their competitors had “defiled a national park.” Since there was not enough scientific evidence backing up such Winnie and Daniel’s experiment — it was too early to make any calls, really — TicoFruit won the legal battle. For the next 15 years, the orange dumping site was neglected, until Timothy decided it was time to go back.
Daniel’s story of the unfinished experiment piqued Timothy’s curiosity, especially when the young scientist learned that after all this time “no one had really done a thorough evaluation.” This was the research project that Timothy had been looking for, however, cracking the case wouldn’t be so easy. Most people had completely forgotten about it.
Timothy happened to be heading to Costa Rica for another research project, but he took the time visit the barren forests of the land — or, at least, he was led to believe they were barren. With little details on any changes, Timothy was only given one clue on how to find the orange dumping grounds.
Daniel Jenzen told Timothy that a very clear sign with bright yellow lettering by a dirt road that would direct him to the experiment site. When he arrived at the Guanacaste Conservation Area, he followed Daniel’s directions. But after walking down the dirt road for so long, he realized he was lost. One detail did give him a hint of where to go, but his guess was a long shot.
Walking down the dirt road, Timothy couldn’t see any signs to direct him, but he did notice how different the opposing sides of the road were. One side was overflowing with lush plant life with the most vibrant shades of green, while the other side paled in color and size, with little vegetation to speak of. The question was, which side had the compost treatment?
Timothy didn’t have a ton of time on this trip to Costa Rica, but it wouldn’t be his last. A week later, he returned and searched for the sign yet again, but still couldn’t find it. Regardless, he recognized something special about the area. The flourishing greenery was all brand new, with several new species popping up. Desperate for an explanation, Timothy put a team together back at Princeton.
Back at the Costa Rican forest, Timothy brought several of his colleagues with him, including Jonathan Choi, a senior studying ecology and evolutionary biology. The senior was stunned by the differences between the two parcels of land.
“The site was more impressive in person than I could’ve imagined,” Jonathan said. “While I would walk over exposed rock and dead grass in the nearby fields, I’d have to climb through undergrowth and cut paths through walls of vines,” he explained. Together, the team finally discovered the truth.
While exploring the area, Timothy’s team finally found the ever elusive yellow sign — and even then they could’ve easily missed it. The sign was hidden behind a hefty amount of trees and vines that they had to tear down to properly read it. Its lettering confirmed that this was the orange dumping site from 1997.
“It was so completely overgrown with trees and vines that I couldn’t even see the 7-foot-long sign with bright yellow lettering marking the site that was only a few feet from the road,” said Timothy. For the next three years, the team of ecologists studied the area, comparing the benefits of the orange compost on soil with the dried up land just across the way.
After analyzing the soil samples — one from the lush part of the forest, the other from the dying part — and also the different ecosystems, the team found that the orange compost did more than just help the forest grow. With richer soil and an even more diverse living environment, the oranges did more than anyone could imagine.
Just by looking, the scientists could tell there was difference in growth, but after studying the samples, they saw that the orange peels and pulp had revived the soil tenfold! Not only did the vegetation grow back, but new trees that were even bigger than before thrived. One element of their discoveries would be monumental in the fight for Earth’s future.
Growing back forests is the goal, but what is the bigger picture? According to a 2016 study, this type of regrowth actually makes the forest stronger against climate change. Basically, researchers found that these forests “absorb and store atmospheric carbon at roughly 11 times the rate of old-growth forests.” In plain English, that means a clearer and safer atmosphere for us and the planet.
Timothy’s expedition revealed huge progress toward battling deforestation, but that wouldn’t guarantee a long-term victory. The ecologists would need more companies to join in on proper waste management, but according to Timothy, that’s a little easier said than done.
“We don’t want companies to go out there just dumping their waste all over the place, but if it’s scientifically driven and restorationists are involved in addition to companies, this is something I think has really high potential,” said Timothy. Professor of ecology and evolutionary biology David Wilcove shared a similar sentiment.
“Plenty of environmental problems are produced by companies”, said the professor. “But an awful lot of those problems can be alleviated if the private sector and the environmental community work together. I’m confident we’ll find many more opportunities to use the ‘leftovers’ from industrial food production to bring back tropical forests. That’s recycling at its best.”
Treuer is convinced that other parts of the planet could also benefit from the compost treatment. Getting more people on board with composting could be huge, but some people still have negative opinions of the practice. It’s easy to see why, considering the stunts that some people pull. Take the now-infamous incident involving a literal mountain of carrots that upended a community in the U.K., for instance.
Undergraduates at Goldsmiths University were left confused when an art student dumped 240,000 carrots on the campus, smack dab in the middle of a public space. Why? fellow students wondered about the waste. What was the reasoning? Once they found out, they produced a controversial response of their own.
Onlookers watched in awe as a red truck began dumping a seemingly endless flow of carrots onto Goldsmiths’ campus. While many students filmed the bizarre scene, clearly confused, others started fuming. What a waste of carrots!
Well, it was a bit more complicated than that. London M.F.A. student Rafael Perez Evans masterminded the enormous, obstructive pile of carrots — 240,000 of them to be exact. His September 29, 2020 stunt turned out to be more than a just a prodigious pile of rabbit food.
The dumping was all for Rafael’s art installation, Grounding. The installation, which boasts nearly 32 tons of carrots, was a part of the school’s Master of Fine Arts degree show during the first week of October. Rafeal (below) drew questions.
Considering Rafael’s art piece was so… loud, his peers took plenty of pictures and videos of the carrot mountain, promptly posting them to Instagram and Twitter. It wasn’t long before news of Rafael’s installation went viral — and critics pounced.
Rafael’s eco-friendly classmates weren’t shy in admitting they felt his “art” was wasteful and a bit tone deaf. They suddenly became art critics with a cause. What’s so artful about food waste?
Dwindling prices of fruits and veggies have been hurting farmers around the world, costing them money and forcing them to get rid of the bountiful supply of produce they spent all season growing. As market value drops, hard-working farmers get angrier.
Outspoken farmers have performed “dumping” protests, which involve creating mountains with unsold produce in public spaces to bring awareness to the waste of food caused by plummeting prices. While this tactic may be petty, it gets the word around.
According to Rafael’s website, the piece is a “site-specific intervention exploring some of the tensions in visibility between the rural and the city” that brings “into contact two disparate forms: a large contemporary glass university building and fresh carrots.” In laymen’s terms?
“In the city, we are not very connected to the processes of how the things we consume are produced, under which circumstances and conditions,” Rafael said. With a giant pile of carrots, he set out to change this — though the fight became much different than he anticipated.
“The produce in the piece are unwanted carrots, carrots that the food industry in the UK deems not worthy of shelves,” Rafael said. But whether or not they were “worthy of the shelves,” and despite Rafael’s good intentions, his peers were still peeved.
See, Rafael saw an injustice few others did. Grounding was actually intended to bring light to protests performed by European farmers who “react against a central government, which devalues their labour, agency and produce,” said Rafael.
While Grounding can be considered a protest in and of itself, angry students started a counter-protest. They began collecting and cooking carrots from Rafael’s piece, making use of what they saw as pretentious food waste.
Said students began selling meals made from the carrots, the proceeds going to four local food banks: Deptford Reach, Lewisham Food Bank, Peckham Community Kitchen, and Fare Share. The results were impressive.
The students made everything from soups (beef stew with carrots and potatoes sounds excellent), to muffins, to, you guessed it, mini carrot cakes. They collected more than $2,100, and soon their mission started taking off.
The students even created an Instagram account in protest of Rafael’s installation, @goldsmithscarrots. The account’s bio read, “Every day I wake up and dump my silly little load of carrots on my silly little university.” In all seriousness, the Instagram account also offered reasoning for such critical opinions of Grounding.
“Lewisham is one of the poorest boroughs in London and this mass dumping of carrots at Goldsmiths is beyond insensitive. It’s a massive slap in the face,” read one Instagram post. Soon, critics grew louder.
A comment on another @goldsmithscarrots post read “What was created, here? How exactly is this carrot stunt going to help? It creates more controversy than awareness. Instead of trying to get reactions/shock value, they could’ve made a mural, furniture, meals, beverages, etc…. Any of those ideas would’ve shown the LOADS of wasted food.”
“Rafael has arranged for the carrots to be removed at the end of the exhibition run and donated to animals,” a Goldsmiths spokesperson relayed, likely in hopes of calming the masses. But clearly the frustrated students didn’t sit and twiddle their thumbs until they saw that happen.
No matter what side of CarrotGate you’re on, something good did come out of Rafael’s Grounding installation: Money went towards helping people in need, and “unworthy” carrots were repurposed for feeding animals.