10/02/2012 12:06 EDT | Updated 12/02/2012 05:12 EST

Ontario retreating in implementing key environmental programs: watchdog

TORONTO - Throwing away food isn't just a social and economic problem, it's also bad for the environment, an Ontario watchdog said Tuesday.

Environmental commissioner Gord Miller raised the issue in the second part of his annual report, a day after a draft report estimated that Canadians are wasting about $27-billion worth of food — half of which was tossed into household trash bins.

Statistics Canada estimated that Canadians wasted the equivalent of 183 kilograms of food per person in 2007, he noted in his report.

While most people feel guilty about the money they've squandered or those who suffer from hunger, Miller said they also need to remember that it affects the environment, even if the food is diverted from landfills as organic waste.

"It may seem like a little thing to throw out the uneaten half of your sandwich or the limp carrots in your fridge," the report said. "Collectively, though, this behaviour has significant environmental costs."

Resources like water and energy that are used in the production, packaging, transportation and storage of food are wasted when food is thrown away, the report said.

Greenhouse gas emissions are created in the production and preparation of food, as well as when they end up in a landfill, it said.

It also artificially increases the demand for food, which results in the expansion of farmland and deforestation. There's more pressure on existing farmlands, which leads to soil erosion and the increased use of fertilizers.

"In short, it is a no-brainer that food waste reduction should figure prominently on Ontario's policy agenda," the report said.

Miller suggested that the government designate food as waste, which would allow Waste Diversion Ontario to require businesses in the food industry to pay fees to manage their products.

It should also take a second look at a private member's bill two years ago that proposed a significant tax credit for farmers who donate surplus agricultural products to food banks.

It could also encourage institutions such as colleges and universities to stop using trays in cafeterias, which can reduce the amount of wasted food.

At the very least, the government should be tracking the issue and gathering data that could help inform future policy.

Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Minister Ted McMeekin said he welcomes any suggestions on reducing the amount of food that's thrown away.

"My late mom used to say all the time, the old Biblical admonition: waste not, want not," he said.

"We are in many ways — not just with food, but with a lot of commodity goods that are purchased from time to time — wasteful. We don't recycle a lot of products that we should be recycling as often as we should."

McMeekin said he's not sure if a tax credit for farmers is in the cards when Ontario is facing a $15-billion deficit, but he plans to discuss it with Finance Minister Dwight Duncan.

Miller also took aim at the government's "stumbles and retreats" in the implementation of several environmental programs.

Ontario's wildlife monitoring program is an "abject failure," blinding the province to the impact forestry is having on wildlife across the province, he said.

The governing Liberals aren't doing enough either to protect lakes, rivers and streams against the continued threat of dry weather, which resulted in a drought this summer that hurt farmers.

Ontario has a water level response plan, but it's never called for a level 3 response, which can force people to use less water, Miller said.

He also recommended that the government add more off-limit areas to protect birds and bats from wind farms.

"Even though the bird mortality is really low, relative to other sources, for wind turbines, why would we go into important bird areas?" he said.

His recommendation may provide more fuel to vocal local opponents of wind farms in many rural areas.

Natural Resources Minister Michael Gravelle said the province has guidelines in place to protect migratory bats and birds from wind turbines, both before and after construction.

"If those thresholds are reached or exceeded, the company has obligations to take measures to improve those situations," he said.