Food Waste: The Big Picture

Roughly 800 million people are currently undernourished worldwide, and yet, people around the globe collectively waste enough food to feed 3 billion people each year. Not only is Canada a contributor to this massive loss of 1.3 billion tons of food every year, but with all that rotting organic matter ending up in our landfill we are also producing unnecessary methane gas - a greenhouse gas 25x more damaging than carbon dioxide. So how did we get here? Who is to blame? And more importantly, what can we do about it?

Up until the 1950’s many Canadians were food insecure, which means they didn’t have guaranteed, reliable access to safe food. That began to change after World War II when our nation became more prosperous, and the government began to heavily support the agricultural sector. Soon enough we, along with the United States and some European countries, were faced with the opposite problem - an abundance of food at our fingertips. This newfound endless supply of nourishment, seemingly available at anytime and anywhere, created a consumer culture that bit off more than it could chew.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the two biggest reasons today’s consumers end up wasting food is that we over purchase goods at the grocery store, and over rely on “sell-by” dates, often ignoring how our senses evaluate the expiration of a food product. However, even with these bad behaviours, consumers are only responsible for about ⅓ of the food waste problem. The rest of the puzzle is due to inefficiencies within our food supply chain.

The food supply chain explains the farm to table process of how food is grown through to the point of consumption. From the vantage point of the humble potato we can get a pretty good idea of the lengthy journey it takes to wind up as a side dish during our lunch rush. A potato is grown and harvested on a farm, transported to a processing plant to be cleaned and cut into wedges, sent to distribution centre where it is packaged and placed on a truck, transported across highways to our favourite restaurant, and finally cooked to perfection before ending up in our hungry stomachs. While a seemingly straightforward process, at each stage in this journey there are many opportunities for this potato to be wasted.

The first is at the farm, where poor growing conditions during harvest, lack of good (or enough) storage facilities, or not enough market demand could mean that it never makes it off the homestead. The other opportunities arise during the intermediary stages of the food supply chain, where “ugly” food is removed during processing, “pretty” food is bruised or mishandled during shipping, and, the food that does make it to the end of the chain may never even be bought or used. All of these gaps in our supply chain, combined with poor consumer choices, mean that over ⅓ of all food produced in the world is wasted.

It can be pretty disheartening to think of this huge gap between the quantity of food produced and the amount ending up being consumed, especially with the number of undernourished people in the world. However, there is also an environmental problem at play, one which amplifies the impact of each item we unnecessarily throw away. At each stage in the life cycle of a food there are numerous resources involved in it’s growth, processing, transportation and consumption. From the water used to help the grow and clean the potato, to the fossil fuels used in the tractors during harvesting, trucks during transportation and plants during manufacturing, it can be quite a headache to understand just how many finite resources we spend to produce food that just ends up producing greenhouse gases in the landfill. However, as overwhelming as this food waste problem can be, there are people and organizations around the globe finding creative ways to address it.

Whether it’s a grocery store dedicated to selling “ugly” fruits and vegetables, to a mobile app like Feedback helping restaurants reduce their footprint, or an organization like Second Harvest diverting good food from the landfill into the hands of those that need it most, there are many ways that we can help curb this problem. Reducing food waste is an “all hands on deck” kind of issue to tackle, but it is a problem that we know how to solve. All it takes is a small contribution from every member of the food supply chain, from farmer to consumer, to step up and act with waste reduction in mind.

You can follow the author of this article, Maggie Clark, on Instagram @omnivoresdelight

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