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.

Give Peas a Chance

By: Angela Lee

Whether you’re splurging on avocado toast or simply struggling to get enough nutritious food to eat, the bottom line is that what you eat, where it comes from, and how it was produced all matter. As it is becoming increasingly apparent, food is not just a private concern, but rather, has wide-ranging public consequences. Purchasing patterns and market trends are promising signs that people are becoming more aware of the environmental, social, and ethical implications of their food choices, but in light of an ever-expanding population, small-scale voluntarism is clearly not enough. Accordingly, governments and policymakers have a significant role to play in terms of offering the right incentives and disincentives to promote, incentivize, and facilitate more sustainable food production and consumption practices.

Until recently, there has been little by way of systemic efforts at addressing the various and vexing issues related to food production and consumption in Canada. However, in the past year or two, the federal government has launched several initiatives in this respect, with the pinnacle being the National Food Policy led by the Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food. This policy, the first of its kind in Canada, will unquestioningly chart the trajectory of agri-food policy for years to come, by setting both a long-term vision for the health, environmental, social, and economic goals related to food, while also identifying actions we can take in the short-term.

Organizations like Food Secure Canada and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture have long advocated for a National Food Policy, but some remain skeptical of whether such an initiative can live up to its promise. After all, the swath of concerns related to food along every node of the chain – from production through to consumption – are innumerable, and affect each and every Canadian, the privileged and the marginalized both.

Indeed, there are good reasons for skepticism. Barriers to meaningful reform in the agri-food sector have been identified for years now. When it comes to promoting shifts towards more sustainable diets, harmonization needs to occur horizontally as well as vertically in order to ensure coherence among agriculture, health, water, environmental, and trade policies. Yet, fragmentation is still evident today. For example, the recent revision process for Canada’s Food Guide, led by Health Canada, leaves out any considerations about the sustainability of our food choices – a conspicuous absence, given that diets with low environmental impacts are also generally better for our health.

Unfortunately, balancing the priorities and interests of a large and often-divergent group of stakeholders is inherently challenging. However, in a situation that can sometimes seem bleak, the more compelling narrative is one that focuses explicitly on what can be gained by alternative outlooks and approaches. Despite being a challenge to the status quo (arguably, a necessary one), the growing popularity of plant-based alternatives to animal products presents several different kinds of opportunities for Canada.

Though sometimes maligned for ideological reasons, plant-based diets offer compelling advantages. The climate change mitigation potential alone presents a strong case for shifting away from animal products, if one is not persuaded by the health risks and ethical concerns posed by industrial animal agriculture. Further, the sophisticated simulacrums of animal products that are available today are a far cry from the bland veggie burgers and thin plant milks of times past. Embracing plant-based alternatives– if not as outright replacements for traditional animal products, then at least as occasional or supplementary options – can take us one step closer towards addressing the unprecedented global challenges we face today.

Plant-based protein is a key component of many of the alternative products entering the market, and the mounting demand for these kinds of products presents a unique economic opportunity for the Canadian agricultural sector. Canada is a leading producer of pulses—a notably high-protein food group. According to Pulse Canada, “Canadian production of the eight major pulse and special crops (pea, lentil, bean, chickpea, mustard, sunflower, canary seed and buckwheat) increased from about 1 million tonnes in the early 1990s to 5.9 million tonnes in 2015, more than a fivefold increase in 25 years.” By capitalizing on this niche, the Canadian agricultural sector can benefit from this thriving market while concurrently supporting the development of sustainable products from an environmental and human health perspective.

As public consultations get underway for the National Food Policy, it is important that Canadians reflect on the four themes that the federal government has identified as priority issues: increasing access to affordable food; improving health and food safety; conserving our soil, water, and air; and, growing more high-quality food. When supported by thoughtfully designed policies, local, sustainably grown, plant-based food choices can promote each of these goals, while also being delicious, varied, and nourishing. By giving peas a chance, we can challenge unsustainable, unhealthy, unjust, and unethical modes of food production and consumption, while also advancing flexible, realistic, and successful methods and modes of creating change. 

Urban Agriculture

By: Angela Lee

Urban agriculture refers to a wide range of food production initiatives—from growing plants to raising animals—that can occur within cities, whether in backyards, rooftops, community gardens, or public spaces. Although urban agriculture is often small-scale and diffused throughout a city, it also includes larger, commercial operations (for example, producing food in greenhouses).

The concept and practice of urban agriculture is not new, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that 800 million people practice urban agriculture worldwide. However, it is important to note that trends and practices in urban agriculture are very different in wealthy, developed countries than they are in lower-income, food-scarce countries, as they are often driven by different concerns. Although the impetus for urban agriculture is often economic, the contemporary popularity of urban agriculture in wealthy countries has surged in recent years, informed in part by the burgeoning food movement, with its emphasis on healthy, local, minimally processed fare. Many cities in both Canada and the United States have either already adopted or are in the process of adopting measures to encourage the growth of this trend. In Canada alone, examples include urban farms in Halifax and Montreal, community gardens in Ottawa and Calgary, the keeping of backyard chickens in Vancouver, and urban apiaries in Toronto.

Certainly, in terms of food security and food justice, urban agriculture can enhance the nutritional health of a community by acting as a source of both food supply and income. Urban agriculture also offers a number of benefits over and above simply contributing to the food supply, including creating jobs, enriching education, promoting environmental sustainability, community-building, and neighbourhood beautification. Even though much of the rhetoric surrounding urban agriculture from within the food movement has been positive, there are also other theoretical and practical issues associated with urban agriculture from a food and environmental justice standpoint that must be considered.

From an environmental justice perspective, the public health and environmental hazards of urban agriculture—and the distribution of such impacts—are of particular concern. For example, even while urban agriculture can reverse the environmental decline of urban areas by creating green spaces and adding organic content to the urban environment, there are a range of problems that can also arise, including nuisance from unpleasant smells or sounds, various sanitation concerns, and threats to biodiversity. Because urban farms and gardens may be located in proximity to industrial or commercial areas, there are also contamination concerns in relation to the food produced, as well as for the workers. The use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides poses especially acute health and environmental threats in densely populated urban environments, where they can easily carry to contaminate the surrounding neighbourhood. The location of urban agriculture sites and the associated risks therefore raises important questions about environmental justice.

Further, the connection between urban agriculture and increased food security is not an uncomplicated given. This is especially the case in relation to urban commercial gardens operating in impoverished, already marginalized urban neighborhoods. Nathan McClintock has argued that urban agriculture can actually function as a form of neoliberalism, by shifting the burden of food production and provisioning healthy food in low-income areas from the state to non-profits and community-based organizations. Other scholars have raised similar concerns about urban agriculture potentially functioning as a form of “ecological gentrification”.

The practice of urban agriculture also raises gendered concerns, especially since women are a traditionally vulnerable, food-insecure group. Although urban agriculture may afford women valuable opportunities, women may also experience challenges and barriers in accessing the land, capital, and other resources they need to be successful. Consequently, in the context of developing countries, Alice Hovorka argues that in order to benefit, rather than burden women, the promotion and support of urban agriculture must take on a specifically emancipatory agenda that challenges structural inequities.

In order to be a viable food strategy, urban agriculture requires ongoing nurturing. As a result, law and policy is highly significant in the context of urban agriculture, because law works directly to help or hinder urban agriculture initiatives, most specifically in the context of zoning and land use policies at the municipal or local level. While the risks associated with urban agriculture undoubtedly require careful regulation, the legalities of urban agriculture practices in Canada can be described as being in a state of confused disarray. It is important that as questions and concerns relating to our food practices become more pressing, our laws and policies keep step. Notably, best practices for urban agriculture should be attentive to the local environment and context, and take into account all nodes of the food system, including production, processing, distribution, consumption, and waste.  

As the interest and importance of urban agriculture increases, multiple avenues for further scholarly inquiry appear, including the intersections between urban agriculture, food security and food justice, and environmental justice. By applying a critical lens to the ongoing and emerging issues related to urban agriculture and other related initiatives, better laws and policies can be crafted to move us closer towards a more just and sustainable food system in Canada.