Food is so plentiful in Canada that even our garbage cans are full of it.
We throw away 40 per cent of our edibles every year according to most recent estimates.
If wasting food is shameful, then why aren’t we ashamed?
Gallery of solutions to our problem with food waste
Many of us blithely toss the food that rots in our fridges, kitchen scraps and unwanted leftovers into the green bin and congratulate ourselves for sending our waste for composting and keeping it out of landfill.
Food waste is an unappetizing problem. It involves the entire food chain, from farmers and manufacturers right down to supermarkets, restaurants and consumers. Though they are linked, one level doesn’t care much about the other.
There hasn’t been much political or industry will to analyze the problem. That’s what the Value Chain Management Centre in Guelph hopes to combat with the release of its November study, Food Waste in Canada.
The unpublished study estimates $27 billion worth of food finds its way into landfill and composting each year, which it considers a crisis.
While “food miles (at the distribution level) are often portrayed as the environmental demon and creator of waste,” they cause just 3 per cent of it, the study estimates. Consumers who throw food out at home are to blame for 51 per cent.
“At home we look at the meal — we don’t look at what’s left over from the meal,” says centre director Martin Gooch, a researcher who co-authored the study with Abdel Felfel and Nicole Marenick.
The centre is part of Guelph’s George Morris Centre, a non-profit, agri-food think tank. The study was funded by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
“All of the incremental elements of waste add up,” stresses Gooch. “As a society, we look for simple solutions when we need to redesign the entire system.”
In his 2010 book, American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It), U.S. journalist Jonathan Bloom reports that a Rockford, Illinois, elementary school sent kids out to play before they ate lunch instead of after. It discovered students were hungrier and wasted 30 per cent less food.
“I’d call that redesigning the system to get a better outcome,” says Gooch.
He says our food industry is “pretty dysfunctional” because links in the chain do not understand, or want to understand, each other. For example, food producers and processors don’t talk much except about price and volume. Small restaurants may bond with some farmers, but that should be happening on a larger scale.
“At the moment, there’s still too much ‘them and us’ thinking.”
Jo-Anne St. Godard, executive director of the Recycling Council of Ontario, calls food waste “the elephant in the room” and admits it’s difficult to create policies and regulations around it.
“Food is put on to the marketplace to be consumed,” she says. “The steward expects you to eat it. If it goes into the composting stream, who pays the bill?”
In Ontario, there are multiple fees for everyone from manufacturers to consumers to handle the disposal of e-waste (electrical and electronic equipment like televisions and computers). But how do you do that with a head a lettuce?
“I think we ignore this more than we should, especially given the environmental and economic impact of food waste,” says Gooch.
Bloom calls the green bin “a guilt eraser,” because it makes us feel noble to keep it out of landfill, even though we’re still wasting it and not thinking about what happens to it once it’s hauled away to be processed into compost.
While large-scale solutions to food waste are discussed, there is much to be done at each level. Farmers can turn over unwanted crops to gleaners who turn over the free harvest to the hungry.
Food manufacturers and restaurants can join food-recovery programs like Second Harvest. Consumers, whether they’re eating at restaurants or at home, can choose not to buy more than they can eat or cook.
“It’s a bizarre sort of culture we’ve cultivated,” says St. Godard.
All-you-can-eat buffets, fast food lunches with options to supersize, weekly supermarket binges, chest freezers and a “buy now and pay for it later” mentality all contribute to the problem.
In England, the government is working hard to combat the culture of overshopping.
A government-funded agency called Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) analyzed the trash of more than 2,000 households a few years ago and discovered that about one-third of food bought in United Kingdom is thrown out every year. Gooch would love funding for a similar study here.
Riffing off the adage “waste not, want not,” WRAP launched its “Love Food Hate Waste” campaign. With the help of chefs and celebrities, it suggests simple things people can do at home to waste less food, save money and help the environment.
Lovefoodhatewaste.com also doles out advice on portion size, meal planning and food storage. A recipe area lets people do a search on “what food needs using up.” There’s even a downloadable 21-page, seven-day diary that you can use to keep track of your food waste.
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Also see Creative solutions to handle food waste in the Toronto Star for more information.
Flickr image courtesy of Simon.