Canadians waste billions in food each year
Robin Pickell, a 'freegan', eats a green bean that was scavenged in Vancouver, British Columbia April 11, 2012. A 'Freegan' is someone who gathers edible food from the garbage bins of grocery stores or food stands that would otherwise have been thrown away. REUTERS/Ben Nelms
TORONTO -- Most people know it's a shame to waste food.
But a new report from Ontario Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller highlights the stress on the environment of growing, packaging, transporting and then throwing out food.
Overseas, politicians have resolved to make 2014 the "European Year Against Food Waste."
Closer to home, despite evidence that Canadians waste more food than Europeans, the political discussion is just beginning, Miller said this week, following the release of his 2011/12 annual report, Losing Our Touch.
"It's kind of sad that we don't see that in the public discourse here," Miller said. "We don't recognize these environmental problems as what they are, which is major societal challenges."
Food Waste in Canada, a report by Abdel Felfel, Martin Gooch and Nicole Marenick for the Value Chain Management Centre/George Morris Centre, which was released last year, estimated the value of wasted food in Canada at $27.7 billion a year.
The report concluded that consumers are the biggest source of wasted food, although there's loss all along the food chain, adding up to 183 kg per person annually.
University of Guelph professor Ralph C. Martin said the average Canadian household spends $140 a week on food, according to Statistics Canada, and if 20% of that goes to waste, it represents $28 of that budget.
There are many reasons why Canadians are more prone to wasting food than Europeans.
North Americans tend to have bigger fridges, shop once a week in larger quantities and eat out more often -- so the foodstuffs purchased with good intentions on Saturday morning are no longer appetizing when fished out from the back of the shelf the following weekend, Miller said.
"I would encourage people to spend the same amount of money but to think about buying quality -- it might be grass-fed meat or it might be local or it might be gluten-free or it might be organic ... pay a little bit more for some of the quality attributes that you want, don't spend any more money," Martin said. "Then eat it. Don't waste it. And I think we'd all be better off."
Food producers would still get the same amount of money, but a lower quantity of wasted food would mean less stress on the environment.
The environmental costs come at both ends -- greenhouse gases to produce and transport food and then more greenhouse gases to dispose of it, especially if it ends up in landfill.
Methane, produced when food decomposes in landfill, is at least "20 times worse" a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, Martin said.
A European Parliament resolution says that food waste adds up to 179 kg per person annually in member states, and would grow by 40% by 2020 without a co-ordinated strategy.
The EU resolution recommended better education, including school courses in how to store, cook and dispose of food properly.
Food packaging should also be offered in a range of sizes so consumers don't have to buy more than they need, and public institutions should use caterers who follow responsible food practices, the European Commission says.
Miller said the "best before" in Ontario is a confusing and sometimes misleading labelling system which too often leads customers to throw out food while it's still edible.
Miller recommends officially designating food as "waste" so that a process is set in place to encourage the industry to reduce or discourage unnecessary disposal of their products.
Gleaning -- distributing unused crops to food banks or others in need -- is also an effective way to deal with unwanted food.
Miller notes that a private member's bill, which never made it into law, proposed tax credits for farmers who donate surplus food.
The commissioner also recommends consumer education -- teaching people that a malformed carrot isn't something to automatically reject, and that the Thanksgiving turkey carcass can be used to make soup.
"Britain is probably the best example where they actually did a public education awareness and they had significant drops in food waste," he said.
In addition to energy wasted, pointless food production contributes to soil depletion and habitat and biodiversity loss.
And don't get Miller started on the water waste.
Agriculture is the largest use of fresh water, and while Ontario has a relatively generous supply, it makes no sense to get complacent, he said.
"We can't escape the world challenges. If the United States southwest continues to get dry and the crops fail, that puts more pressure on us. It makes our food expensive," Miller said. "But also, the big worry is the Great Lakes are connected to the Mississippi River by the Chicago sanitary canal -- and there's been historically a lot of pressure to take water out of the Great Lakes."
GOVERNMENT WANTS ONTARIANS TO BUY MORE LOCAL FOOD
The Ontario government is challenging citizens to shift $10 of their weekly grocery shopping bill to locally grown and produced food.
The province estimates that this measure would increase Ontario food sales by $2.4 billion and create 10,000 jobs.
Local food also tends to have a smaller environmental footprint.
"It's an issue of education, it's an issue of helping everyone from producer to processor to retailer to consumer understand how fortunate we are to be able to have food to consume, let alone waste," Ontario Agriculture Minister Ted McMeekin said. "No one's guilty but everybody's responsible. So we have to all keep at that."
During a recent trip to one pork processor, McMeekin said he asked how much of the pig was used and was told 99.9%.
"They said, 'Well, we still haven't figured out what to do with the pig's squeal. We're negotiating with General Motors to see if we can have it installed in their new brake lines."
Do you ever throw away food?
No, I eat everything I buy
Yes, I do