Looking at the food system in Canada is a study in contrasts. On one hand, one in eight Canadian families struggle to put food on the table, and over 800,000 people visit a food bank each month. On the other hand, we waste $31 billion in food each year, or a third of what we produce.
How can a country with so much abundance also have such great need? As with any problem that is so enormous in scale, the reasons are complex, the impacts are wide-ranging, and the solutions are far from easy.
Why do we have so much waste?
Food waste is a systemic problem, and it happens along every step of the food chain, from field to fork.
Take your average tomato. Before it can get to you, it has to go through dozens of obstacles to prevent it being wasted. On the farm, it must not fall susceptible to pests or disease, be bruised or damaged in the picking process, be missed when harvesting, or be the wrong shape and size to fit on a grocery store shelf.
Once it leaves the farm, any number of calamities can happen to the tomato. It may be damaged in transport, contaminated when handling, improperly dated in inventory management, over-ordered by a retailer, or just not chosen by the customer because of a small imperfection. Portion sizes, changes in demand, and mistakes in preparation can also mean that tomato is thrown out on the restaurant or food service level.
But the biggest culprit in food waste is the average consumer. Individuals are responsible for nearly half of all food wasted. Just think of all the bananas we've let go brown, soggy lettuce we forget about in the crisper, or loaves of bread that went moldy in the cupboard.
What Impact Does Food Waste Have?
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization says that if food waste were its own country, it would have the third-largest carbon footprint after the U.S. and China, thanks to both the resources used in producing, transporting and storing food that is never eaten, and the potent methane emissions created by food decomposing in landfills.
While food waste is an undoubtedly enormous and complex problem, it also happens to be one with a lot of opportunity for change.
Food waste also impacts the bottom line of farmers and the food industry. Farmers are responsible for the cost of growing and raising all of their crops and livestock, but only get paid for the amount that they sell. It cuts into the profits and sustainability of companies along every step of the food chain. These costs reverberate throughout the economy.
Some of these costs are passed onto the consumer. Back in January, the skyrocketing price of food in Canada dominated the news cycle. These increases put further stress on both people who were already finding it difficult to afford food and the food banks who were trying to buy food to assist them. While there are many reasons for food becoming more expensive, it's estimated that food waste equates to a 10 to 20 per cent increase in the price of food paid by consumers.
How Can We Solve The Food Waste Problem?
While food waste is an undoubtedly enormous and complex problem, it also happens to be one with a lot of opportunity for change. The spotlight on the problem of food waste in recent years seems to slowly, but surely, be bringing about change in government policy, the food industry, and consumers.
Waste audits such as the Guelph Food Waste Research Project and apps that track food waste at the restaurant and institutional level can raise awareness of exactly how much and what kind of food we are throwing out, and spark change on a larger level.
Changes in consumer and retailers' attitudes around what food "should" look like can create a market for food that would otherwise have been wasted, such as Loblaws' Naturally Imperfect line, which sells less-than-perfect produce at a reduced cost. The National Zero Waste Council in Canada has proposed a federal tax incentive for corporations that donate nutritious food to charity.
Most people don't know that "best before" dates are only a guide for food quality, not food safety, which can lead to unnecessary food waste. Other measures such as planning meals, having smaller and more frequent grocery shopping trips, and recipes on using up leftovers can go a long way towards reducing the amount of food rotting in the back of the fridge.
Across the globe, countries and communities are coming up with innovative solutions to address food insecurity. France made headlines earlier this year with their decision to ban food waste at supermarkets, making it mandatory for the retailers to donate their food. In the UK, the Courtauld Commitment for food manufacturers and retailers has already cut down waste by 8.8 per cent, and their Love Food Hate Waste public education campaign reduced household food and drink waste by 21 per cent.
At the Ontario Association of Food Banks, we work with farmers and food companies to rescue good, surplus food from being wasted, and ensure it gets to our 125 member food banks and 1,100 affiliate hunger-relief agencies. In Ontario, we passed the Food Donation Tax Credit for farmers who donate agricultural products to food banks and other hunger-relief charities.
Food Banks Canada, our national counterpart, works with the food industry on a national level to rescue a large quantity of non-perishable products. On the local level, the vast majority of our food banks have developed relationships with their local farmers, retailers, and restaurants to receive excess good food that might otherwise go to waste.
There is no reason that a country with so much food should have the issue of hunger as well. It is up to us to come up with solutions that both address food waste as well as increase the accessibility of fresh, nutritious food for all Canadians.
To support the Ontario Association of Food Banks' mission to get more good food to Ontarians in need, please give today at oafb.ca/donate
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