Column: Food waste a fixable problem

Today, Canadians waste $31 billion worth of food every year. That’s about 30 per cent to 40 per cent of all food produced.

Growing up in postwar England, I remember the food stamps that were issued to ration people’s consumption of food at a time of scarcity and to ensure there was enough to feed the military. Even the Royal Family had ration books.

It started on January 8, 1940 and didn’t end until 1954. Basic supplies like tea, dairy, porridge, sugar and eggs were calculated and each family went to their local grocer and butcher to register. The coupons were sent to the Ministry of Food to be counted so they would know each grocer’s future supply needs. You got what you needed. Nothing more. The food was fresh. People were healthy. And nothing was wasted.

Fast forward 60 years.

Today, Canadians waste $31 billion worth of food every year. That’s about 30 per cent to 40 per cent of all food produced.

That’s appalling.

Then, if you factor in the related wastage of land use, labour, water, fertilizer, farm equipment use and maintenance, transportation,  fuel and energy, storage and warehousing, disposal fees, markdowns and re-packaging, that figure can easily triple.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the estimate of direct food waste is just 29 per cent of the total cost of waste which is calculated in Canada at $107 billion. Annually.

And, according to a 2014 report by Value Chain Management International, the figure of $31 billion is actually up $4 billion more than their reported figure of $27 billion of wasted food in 2010. That’s an increase of 15 per cent of wasted food in just four years.

The wastage is levelled at every sector of society along the production and supply chain from the farm (10 per cent), to processing (20 per cent), transportation and distribution (4 per cent), restaurants and hotels (9 per cent), retail stores (10 per cent), and, largest of all, consumers (47 per cent). Not included due to lack of verifiable data is food waste from international catering – airlines, cruise ships, merchant ships, cross-border trains, yachts, and the military. Nevertheless those are still considered to be major contributors of food waste.

That’s a pretty awful amount of food to be thrown into landfills.

So, to put that $31 billion into context, the VCM report stated that it represents 30 per cent of what was produced by Canada’s agriculture and agri-food system in 2012, 2 per cent of Canada’s GDP in 2013, more than two-thirds of the value of all Canada’s agricultural exports ($43.6 billion) in 2012, slightly less than the value of all our agricultural food imports ($32.3 billion) and – get this – higher than the combined GDP of the world’s 29 poorest countries.

Why are we so wasteful? Because it’s easy and, sadly or badly, we’ve become a casual toss-away society. It’s easy to go to the store, load up the buggy, stash it all away, have a meal change of plans, and forget about it. A month later when that stuff at the back of the fridge is changing shape and growing fuzz, it’s easy to toss it out and buy more.

And yet it would be so easy to cut waste back by at least 20 per cent with careful shopping, follow through on making those planned meals, using up left-overs in another meal or include them in lunches, freezing what’s not been used in a timely manner, turning overripe fruits into desserts or sweet breads, and buying only amounts of perishable foods that can be used before best-before dates. Food, money, time, and space are saved.

Food waste is a mindset that has got to change. Population growth and climate change are already challenging food production.

We can afford to waste nothing.