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Reducing Food Waste Can Help Save The Environment

04/13/2017 04:56 EDT | Updated 04/13/2017 05:04 EDT

With Earth Day just around the corner, it's a great time to talk about how we can increase our efforts to better care for our planet. Climate change is one of the great challenges of our time, and how we deal with this problem will define our future as a species.

One of the biggest contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions is food waste. If food waste were its own country, it would have the third-largest carbon footprint after the United States and China. Not only does food thrown into a landfill produce methane as it rots -- a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide -- it is also an enormous waste of the resources and labour that's used to grow, process, transport and cook food.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that we will need to ramp-up global food production by 70 percent by 2050 to meet the world's food needs. Not only will this be a huge challenge - especially with the effects that climate change, such as drought and extreme weather, will have on our ability to grow food - greater food production will take an even bigger toll on our natural systems. It will require greater use of land for agriculture, more inputs of limited resources like fresh water and fertilizer, and put even greater strain on endangered wild populations, such as fish.

Thus, the fact that we waste a third of the food we produce is a great irony, and a huge missed opportunity. Reducing food waste can go a long way to bridging the gap we need in future food production.

About half of food waste happens before it even gets to our plates. One suggested course of action to reducing this food waste is to redirect it to food banks. At the Ontario Association of Food Banks, much of the food that is donated is high-quality, nutritious food that is "non-saleable" for reasons such as errors in labelling, cosmetic imperfections, or being too close to the sell-by date (though we never accept expired food).

Had the food from last year's donation programs, outside of agricultural partnerships, gone to the landfill instead, it would have generated a carbon footprint of approximately 3 million kilograms of CO2. Diverting this food is the equivalent of taking 630 cars off the road.

Food banks often struggle with shortages in donations, especially during the summer months when donating to the food bank is not top-of-mind for many people. Increasing the amount of good, healthy food donated through diversion is a potential way to increase the amount of food available at food banks.

The National Zero Waste Council has proposed a tax credit to encourage businesses to donate to food banks, similar to the Ontario Association of Food Banks' tax credit for farmers which has been adopted in several other provinces.

Food Banks Canada, our national counterpart, recently won a Google Grant to develop their FoodAccess app, which would directly connect retailers, manufacturers, and farmers with food banks to recover good food.

However, diversion is not a perfect, catch-all solution to food waste. A recent waste audit of Winnipeg Food Harvest found that 11 percent of food donations were thrown out, because they did not meet the food bank's quality control standards . This can put additional stress on already tight resources, as food banks often have to incur the cost of properly disposing of food that is considered unsafe or inedible.

Most importantly, diversion to food banks is a downstream solution to an upstream problem. We have more than enough food to feed everyone in this country. Hunger is a symptom of poverty, not food shortages, so in order to truly solve it, we have to look at root causes like an inadequate social safety net, precarious work that makes it difficult to pay the bills, and unaffordable housing. Ultimately, we must look to create a society where people don't need to go to a food bank in the first place.

One of the best ways to address food waste is preventing it from happening along every step of the food chain. While the amount of food wasted makes reducing it seem like a gargantuan task, it's one that is eminently doable and that we can all play a part in. After all, half of the food that's wasted happens at the household level - and a good portion of pre-household level is because of our cultural attitudes towards what food should look like.

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Since 1975, per capita food waste has increased by 50 percent - so it wasn't all that long ago that we wasted much less than we do now. Food writers are constantly telling us to "eat like your great-grandmother," so perhaps we should extend that idea beyond just what we eat and into how we eat.

In the 19th century and into the early 20th century, food took up 40 percent of a household budget, and refrigeration was only beginning to become ubiquitous. Thus, food rarely went to waste - leftovers were repurposed into something new, and food preservation techniques like canning were a necessary household skill.

We can learn many lessons from our great-grandparents' generation, including how to make "no waste" cool again. Given that we have seen huge improvements in technology, preservation, and supply chain management since those days, it's certainly possible for us to do even better. Considering the urgency of reducing our carbon emissions, we must do better.

However, the pace of progress can be slow. In the meantime, it is an injustice to allow people to go hungry and for perfectly good food to be thrown into a landfill. We must address the dual problems of hunger and food waste on all fronts and believe that a solution to both challenges can be found when we work together.

For information on what food you -- or your company! -- can donate to your food bank, please visit our website: https://oafb.ca/donate/donate-food/

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