The holiday season has passed and, almost certainly, a considerable amount of food has been thrown into the garbage.
Food waste is a serious challenge in the developed world. While some suffer from food insecurity, estimates are that up to 33 per cent of food supply is wasted globally. In Canada, that number is closer to 50 per cent, and more than half of such waste is likely avoidable.
A study by an international consultancy group Value Chain Management Centre found that the cost of Canada’s annual food waste in 2010 was $27 billion, rising to $31 billion in 2014. One commentator puts this figure in perspective: It’s more than the GDP of the 29 poorest countries in the world combined.
Food waste comes in many forms: trimmings during meal preparation, plate scrapings and perishable items such as fruits and vegetables that are expired or nearly so. The waste takes place at both the household and the business levels.
A number of European countries are taking active steps to tackle the latter problem. Both France and Italy recently introduced laws that prohibit supermarkets from throwing away food and Germany has put a plan in place to halve food waste by 2030. Tellingly, household food waste in Germany is estimated at only 11 million kilograms, compared to nearly four times as much in Canada. A Danish government initiative to reduce waste has spurred on the opening of a “food waste” supermarket: Perfectly edible food that is then sold at 30 to 50 per cent cheaper than usual.
What about Canada? A private member’s bill introduced last year by NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau to establish a national strategy for combatting food waste was defeated 220-59. The vote was not strictly partisan: 11 Liberal, four Conservative and all nine Bloc Quebecois members joined the NDP caucus in voting for the bill. From Ontario, only nine MPs voted in support of the bill, including only one London-area MP.
To be fair, opponents of the bill did not seem to question the need for a national food strategy.
Rather, their objections seemed to centre on whether the specific strategy introduced in the bill had received sufficient “stakeholder” input.
Despite the renewed attention and the startling figures, our federal agriculture minister has not committed to anything beyond being “open to discussions” in 2017.
There are practical consequences to food waste beyond the moral argument that a just society should not waste so much food when so many are going without. A 2015 Maclean’s article points out that food production uses 80 per cent of all fresh water consumed in the United States and edible food that ends up in landfills produces methane, a greenhouse gas. “If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, after China and the U.S., and a major contributor to global warming,” the report says.
In Canada, businesses can reduce operating costs by 15 to 20 per cent and increase profitability by up to 11 per cent by cutting down on food waste.
Even in the absence of a national or provincial strategy, local action is possible. Municipalities, for example, can implement their own programs, as Nanaimo and Thunder Bay have done. Sustain Ontario, a not-for-profit dedicated to sustainable food and farming, has recently launched a toolkit for local programs to reduce household food waste.
But more importantly, there are a number of strategies we can implement as individuals to reduce household food waste. At the end of the day, common sense prevails. Plan meals, don’t buy in bulk, pre-portion food, and find alternate uses for overripe fruits and vegetables.
University of Guelph researchers have found that the more aware people are of food waste, the less food wasted.
Don’t wait for the politicians. Ask your family to make reducing food waste a shared new year’s resolution for 2017.