Waste Not, Want Not: The Opportunities and Challenges Presented by Food Waste in Canada

By: Angela Lee

Increasingly, a cogent body of evidence demonstrates that the impact of global food and agricultural production and consumption patterns on environmental sustainability is not to be understated. For example, the recently published EAT-Lancet Commission report, the result of a multi-year study bringing together 37 experts from 16 countries, comes to the consensus that “[a] radical transformation of the global food system is urgently needed.” Put starkly, if we are to maintain human and planetary health, there needs to be a “great food transformation” entailing a number of significant dietary shifts, including increased consumption of plant-based foods while, in many settings, substantially limiting animal-sourced foods.

Problems are not limited solely to what we’re eating, however, but are also apparent in how we treat food in general. In the Canadian context, The Avoidable Crisis of Food Waste, a recent report produced by Second Harvest and Value Chain Management International, highlights how food waste, in particular, presents both a formidable challenge and a significant opportunity when it comes to sustainability.

Food loss and food waste occur at all points along the supply chain. Thus, a diverse array of stakeholders, including growers, manufacturers, processors, retailers, distributors, and consumers, all have a role to play in preventing and decreasing food loss and waste. However, the disproportionate emphasis that has been placed on consumers in the past has been debunked by the new report, which highlights that processing and manufacturing are the largest sources of avoidable waste.

Clearly, government at all levels—from federal to municipal—also has a role to play. Regrettably, there is currently no national policy or strategy on food waste, though food waste will hopefully be addressed as part of the emerging Food Policy for Canada. Many Canadian cities do not have a streamlined approach to the management of food waste. While this means that Canada has not benefited from more centralized approaches to the problem of food waste, as in other countries like the United Kingdom, it also means that flexible, locally appropriate measures can be developed and adopted if food waste was made a priority.

In terms of other solutions, many advocates have already highlighted the need for labeling reforms to standardize dates and terms used to distinguish between expiry dates, sell-by dates, and best-before dates (with only expiry dates truly representing food safety concerns as opposed to merely those of food quality). The need to clarify liability regimes around donated and diverted food has also been flagged as a notable issue. Though there are laws in place to shield donors who donate food in good faith from liability—and despite there being virtually no record of cases in which a food donor was sued by a donee—the misconception that donors of food items open themselves up to lawsuits remains widespread.

Further, not all food waste is created equal. The distinction between avoidable and unavoidable food waste is, of course, salient, but of food waste that is avoidable, further divisions can be made. Products that have the greatest environmental footprints, especially meat and other animal products, are especially detrimental when they are wasted, because of the double burden they present at each end of their life cycle. Avoiding the loss and waste of these kinds of products should take precedence over forms that are more benign.

Above all, our attitudes toward food, like our attitudes to the environment in general, need to change. For those of us privileged enough to live in Western industrialized nations, our access to clean air, fresh water, and healthy food can easily be taken for granted. Even while food insecurity remains a serious issue even within wealthy countries like Canada, food is regularly discarded for minor infractions such as cosmetic imperfections, slightly diminished freshness, and sometimes even just the fact that we didn’t feel like eating a particular item that day.

Indeed, among consumers, it is prepared food and leftovers that are commonly wasted. Though it is pleasant to be able to eat a unique, delicious dish for each meal of the day, this needs to be seen for what it is: a luxury, not a right. The true value of food has been eroded such that superficial qualities such as taste, convenience, and appearance have trumped the intrinsic value of food as sustenance. A more conscientious approach to food and eating needs to be inculcated, driven from both the top-down and the bottom-up.

Attitudes toward food have undergone a remarkable shift, even in just the past few decades. During the austere war and post-war eras, for example, people regularly repurposed leftovers, shopped scrupulously, and limited their portions. Though from a relative perspective, we live in a time of abundance, the immense toll that has been and is being extracted to produce enormous quantities of food that are ultimately wasted is being levied against future generations’ ability to survive on Earth, much less thrive.

Fortunately, there are numerous groups and minds working toward developing and implementing better solutions for Canada’s significant food waste problem. In addition to organizations like the National Zero Waste Council and Second Harvest, there are also academic initiatives like the Food Systems Lab at Simon Fraser University that are studying the effectiveness of various different kinds of household food waste awareness campaigns, with results expected to be published this year. As awareness of the problems and knowledge of the solutions expands, we are better equipped to build the momentum necessary to see real change. Not only should and can we do much better, but if we are to preserve a livable Earth—we must.