Focus on reducing food waste, not just boosting production

Note: This commentary was originally published in Ontario Farmer, June 25, 2013 edition.

June 5th was World Environment Day. I don’t normally pay much attention to these kinds of things – we seem to have a day for everything – but this one got me.

The theme of World Environment Day this year was food waste.

One of the current mantras in agriculture is producing more and how we’re going to do that to feed the estimated nine billion people expected live on this planet by about 2043.

In my line of work, I write a lot about research and innovation that will help us do just that – yet that seems at odds with some of the startling figures about how much of what we already produce is never actually consumed.

We have a curious relationship with food in this part of the world. On one hand, we worry about it – wondering whether we’re eating healthy and fighting feelings of guilt associated with the calorie, fat or carb content when we suspect we might not be.

And on the other hand, we take its abundance and relatively affordable price for granted, so much so that we’re throwing it out by the truckload. Literally.

The United Nations says at least one third of all food produced fails to make it from the farm to the table.

A new study by the World Resources Institute and the United Nations Environment Programme has found that one out of every four calories produced by the global agricultural system is lost or wasted.

Closer to home, a 2010 study by the Value Chain Management Centre estimated that $27 billion worth of food is wasted annually in Canada.

The reasons for this waste are many. In some parts of the world, it’s war, corruption or lack of infrastructure that keeps food from getting to those who need it or lets it spoil before it is consumed.

It’s a different story here.

Most of us in the post-war generations are lucky enough to never have known rationing or hunger.

We’re also fortunate to live in a part of the world where crops grow easily and farmers are experts at growing them abundantly. Even when weather disasters strike, we are still able to eat.

Our hectic, convenience-based lifestyles mean we don’t shop for groceries daily. Instead, most of us probably shop about once a week and, given the lure of bulk packaging and volume discounts, buy way more than we actually need or are able to eat.

We’re obsessed with perfection.

Most Canadians no longer really know how food is produced, so we have little idea what it looks like before we see it in a box at the supermarket or on a restaurant plate. T

his has turned us into ultra-picky consumers in search of the mythical perfection we see in ads and on television, and the marketplace is raising the bar ever higher to try to provide it.

This results in perfectly good food – like fruits and vegetables with minor cosmetic imperfections – being rejected by retailers, and farmers ending up forced to compost or dispose it.

A food rescue program called Forgotten Harvest is a step in the right direction.

It started in Detroit over 20 years ago and expanded into the Windsor-Essex area two years ago.

Forgotten Harvest works with food producers to divert their surplus food, like produce that doesn’t qualify for top grade but is still perfectly edible, from landfills to charity.

Their refrigerated trucks regularly collect tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers from many Leamington-area greenhouses, for example, and distribute them to approximately 50 agencies in the Windsor area.

Forgotten Harvest is one solution but it’s just a drop in the bucket.

Our agri-food system is good at producing more. We’ve been boosting production across many sectors for years.

But we should also put more onus on ensuring all the food – or at least more of it – is actually consumed.

We’d be saving water, energy and resources and we’d likely be boosting business profitability as well.

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