More cooking, better labelling can address food waste

I’ve written about food waste before: here and here, for example.

The statistics that are often used to quantify the shocking amount of food that we produce but end up discarding are staggering.

Not only are we wasting the actual food, but we’re also throwing out the water, energy and other resources we’ve used to produce it.

Various United Nations studies estimate that at least one third of all food produced by the global agricultural system doesn’t make it from the farm to the table.

In Canada, the Value Chain Management Centre has found that our food waste sits at approximately $27 billion a year.

In the developed world, the reasons for waste are many.

the lure of buy one, get one or of supersized packages can be hard for many of us to resist.

For example, some food is deemed unfit for market because of how it looks (blemished or oddly shaped fruits and vegetables come to mind), some is thrown out because it is nearing or has just passed its “sell by” date, and a lot just grows mouldy and rots in our fridges because we buy too much – the lure of buy one, get one or of supersized packages can be hard for many of us to resist.

There is a lot of talk in agricultural circles about feeding nine billion – the global population expected by approximately 2050 – and how we are possibly going to do this given that we only have so much land and so many resources to go around.

Obviously, research and innovation is one solution and it’s an important one.

There are many advances yet to be invented and better ways of doing what we’re currently doing yet to be discovered.

But another part of solving the feeding nine billion puzzle has to be making better use of the vast quantities of food we’re already producing.

Two European Union member countries are leading the charge to do something about that.

Sweden and the Netherlands have asked for an EU-wide debate on “date” labels, which are mandatory on food products under EU legislation.

Consumers are confused about the difference between “best before” and “sell by” labels, which leads to many products being thrown away even though they are still edible and safe.

An estimated 89 million tonnes of edible food is discarded in the European Union each year, they stated in their request, which was also supported by Austria, Denmark, Germany and Luxembourg.

They are calling for changes to the labelling system to reduce unnecessary food waste, which they say is causing the 28-member bloc significant economic losses annually.

That’s a good start, and perhaps something we need to look at in North America as well.

To my way of thinking, though, a third part of this puzzle – and one of our biggest food challenges – is food literacy.

Growing numbers of North Americans don’t know how food is produced, how to cook it, or what to eat and why.

This leads many to make poor food choices or rely disproportionately on eating out or consuming processed ready meals.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture has identified food literacy as one of its four key issues in the recent provincial election.

Bringing food education and preparation back to the classroom is essential, they say, to preventing illness, reducing burden on the healthcare system, and helping young people learn to make healthier food choices.

Their food literacy goal is centered on the “6 x 16” concept.

It is part of the proposed National Food Strategy and would ensure that by age 16, Ontario teens would be able to plan and prepare six nutritious meals.

At the end of the day, farmers are rightly proud of the quality and quantity of food they produce, but it would be nice to see more of it actually be consumed as well.

Note: A version of this post was originally printed in the May 25, 2014 edition of Ontario Farmer.

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