The Unspoken Problem of Food Waste
Food waste is a global problem, especially when you consider that much of the wasted food is still edible.
In my first food service job, I vividly remember watching coworkers toss whole layer cakes, and trays of baked chicken breast into the garbage after a wedding buffet. Someone must have noticed the look of horror on my face, and assured me that, “ I would get used to it.” I never did. Food waste is uncomfortable and feels wrong, especially when you consider those without adequate access to nutritious, safe food. A recent research paper stated, “The abundance of food in Canada has led us to dismiss its intrinsic value as a source of life-giving nutrition at the same time as 4 million Canadians – including 1.4 million children – struggle to access healthy food.”1 In a study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), it was estimated that one third of food produced, approximately 1.3 billion tons, is wasted worldwide every year.2 Food insecurity is not the only problem with food waste; food waste also has negative environmental consequences. As one paper put it, “…if food is wasted by households at the end of the supply chain, all (fossil) energy (and greenhouse gas emissions) put into its production, processing, transportation, cooling and preparation was in vain.”3 In light of the seriousness of food waste, and the current climate crisis, I think it is important to understand some of the reasons why food waste occurs, why it is harmful, and how we can do better.
Food is wasted all the way from farm to table for various reasons. While the onus for mitigating food waste should not solely rest on individual households, and should also be a responsibility of the food industry, there are common reasons why food is wasted at the household level that can easily be addressed by individuals. The FAO study outlined the following reasons why food is wasted in North America: production exceeds demand; retailers only want to sell the most visually appealing produce; people think that disposing is cheaper than reusing; retailers and consumers want large quantities of food on display; people can afford to waste food due to the abundance and consumer attitudes.2 Other reasons why food is wasted at the consumer level include: misleading best before dates, food going bad before it is used, and lack of knowledge about proper food storage and preparation.4 Some of these issues speak to unsustainable production and consumption, but others highlight the lack of education about things like food preparation, what best before dates actually mean, and how imperfect food is still edible. In researching for this article, I learned so much that I didn’t know about the breadth of this issue, and ways that I could decrease food waste. For example, while I was watching good food go to waste at my first serving job, I wish that I, as well as management, knew that there is food donation legislation in every province and territory in Canada, which protects food businesses from liability when donating in good faith. In British Columbia, this is called the Food Donor Encouragement Act. I was also surprised to learn that only 5 foods require expiry dates in Canada (nutritional supplements, meal replacements, baby formula, pharmacist-sold foods for low energy diets, formulated liquid diets), while the bulk of foods have best before dates which are decided by manufacturers, and reflect peak freshness, not safety.1 Understanding why food waste occurs allowed me to determine how I could decrease food waste in my own home. With that said, it is also important to understand why it is a problem, so that we have incentive to change. In my opinion, the two biggest problems with food waste are: edible food is going to the landfill instead of feeding those who don’t have access to safe food; food waste contributes to climate change.
Food insecurity refers to the inability to access food due to financial constraints. Food insecurity encompasses the following: concerns about running out of food before you can afford to buy more, the inability to afford a balanced diet, going hungry, missing meals, and going full days without food due to lack of food and money.5 To be clear, food waste doesn’t cause food insecurity. Within Canada, low-income households are the most at risk, especially if they are single parent homes with children under the age of eighteen.5 Where you live within Canada also makes a difference. For instance, Nunavut, Northwest Territories, and Yukon have the highest amounts of food insecurity in the country.5 Tackling food insecurity within Canada is a complicated process that will involve a lot more than addressing food waste. However, diverting edible food that would otherwise go to the landfill to the people that most need it can help alleviate some of the burden of food insecurity.
In Canada, food waste accounts for 56.6% of the food industry’s carbon footprint, 22.3% of which is comprised of edible food.
As I mentioned previously, food waste has a negative environmental impact. In Canada, food waste accounts for 56.6% of the food industry’s carbon footprint, 22.3% of which is comprised of edible food.6 Carbon footprint is a measure of the estimated amount of greenhouse gases emissions caused by a person, event, organization, product, etc. By measuring greenhouse gas emissions, a thing’s carbon footprint tells us about the environmental impact. Globally, when placed into a country ranking system, food waste is the third highest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions behind USA and China.7 Methane and nitrous oxide, two greenhouse gases, are produced throughout the food chain, and then emitted by food when it ends up in the landfill; therefore, lessening the amount of food entering the landfill will decrease the amount of greenhouse gases that are produced. The same study also measured blue water footprint, which refers to surface or groundwater resources that are used in agriculture, industry, or through domestic water use. It was found that 57.7% of the Canadian food industry’s blue water footprint was due to food waste, with 17.9% of that from avoidable food waste. This is a large waste of both food and water.
While many things need to change within the food industry and households in order to decrease food waste in a meaningful way, we hope to provide some knowledge about the cooking and kitchen skills that help to mitigate food waste. To that end, we will be offering another article highlighting specific ways to reduce food waste in your own home, recipes that highlight how to use vegetables and herbs that are about to go bad, and a community profile of Chef Danya Smith of Lulu’s Apron who doesn’t let anything go to waste. A common thread throughout articles exploring why food waste occurs in North America was that people all throughout the food chain accept food waste. I hope that this article, albeit brief, highlights that food waste is not acceptable.
- Nikkel L. et al (2019) The avoidable crisis of food waste: roadmap. Second Harvest and Value Chain Management International.
- Gustavsson J. et al. (2011) Global food losses and food waste – extent, causes, and prevention. Food and Agriculture organization of the United Nations.
- Schanes K. et al. (2018) Food waste matters – a systematic review of household food waste practices and their policy implications. Journal of Cleaner Production. 182: 978-991.
- Aschemann-Witzel J. et al (2015) Consumer-related food waste: causes and potential for action. Sustainability. 7(6): 6457-6477.
- Tarasuk V. et al (2012) Household food insecurity in Canada, 2012. PROOF.
- Gooch M. et al (2019) The avoidable crisis of food waste: technical report. Second Harvest and Value Chain Management International.
- FAO (2013) Food wastage footprint: impacts on natural resources.
As a way to connect with others, and celebrate food, we decided to organize a recipe exchange of your favourite sweet treats.
COVID-19 has illuminated many of the existing problems in our society, including food insecurity. We wanted to learn more about who is most affected, and discuss why these conversations are necessary, especially in the health and wellness world.
Ariel and Jess Reyes Barton are the creators of Palenke Greens, which is a burlap sack gardening initiative aimed at assisting people of African descent facing food insecurity. Not only do they provide all of the supplies to create a burlap sack garden, they also help to install it, and have exciting ideas for the future.