Each week, I go through the same ritual: I look in my pantry, fridge and freezer to take stock of what food I have so that I can plan my grocery list and also what meals I will cook. I feel rather smug that I am so organized. But, then there is also a darker side to this ritual: I cringe at all the containers stuffed in my fridge that hold the remains of food that my family should’ve been consumed but didn’t. I look at the limp lettuce, the leftovers from my son’s school lunches that he apparently didn’t have time to eat but brought home and then forgot about, the wizened chicken from supper last week that I meant to do something with but didn’t, the pasta sauce at the back of the fridge that now smells suspect, the fresh raspberries that we bought on a whim but grew fuzz before we got to eat them. As I chuck out the food into our kitchen garbage in order to make room for my new food, I scold myself for allowing this to happen?yet again. My husband and I work hard to buy food and I take the time to cook healthy meals. How can let our efforts just go to waste like this?
I asked my friends and colleagues about whether wasted food is a problem in their households, and all of them sheepishly shared very similar stories to my own. There was an admission of guilt; everyone knows that throwing food away is wrong but they just can’t help doing it despite their best intentions not to. There was an air of resignation that throwing out food is just an unfortunate part of a busy modern life. But I couldn’t help but wonder if this was indeed the case, and whether the problem of food waste could ever be completely solved.
As I began my research, I discovered that there is growing recognition that food waste is a huge problem that no one really likes to discuss. Here is just a glimpse into the scale of the problem:
– Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year?approximately 1.3 billion tons?gets lost or wasted.
– According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, food waste that goes to the landfill breaks down anaerobically (in the absence of oxygen) and produces methane, which is 21 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas.
– Every ton of food wasted results in 3.8 tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
– Reducing food waste by 20 percent would provide enough food to feed 25 million people.
– The total value of food waste in Canada is estimated to be around 30 billion dollars per year, according to the most recent available data, and this amount is expected to rise.
So, why has food waste become such a huge environmental and financial issue? As I researched this question, I realized that the answer isn’t easy to trace, and it isn’t as straightforward as it seems.
My first port-of-call in my research was the book American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half Its Food, by Jonathan Bloom. Bloom has extensively investigated the problem of wasted food across North America and has uncovered that the problem of waste is endemic to every level of food production and consumption. It begins at the government level, with the limits imposed on food production, such as the regulatory boards in Canada that regulate the amount of food entering the system. Then there are the food companies themselves, along with the grocery chains, that expect exacting standards, especially on produce. Failure to meet these standards results in entire fields of perfectly edible lettuce or carrots being plowed under without leaving the field, or entire shipments being rejected after harvest. Product recalls also have an effect on the amounts of wastage. Even the process of transporting goods?the issue of food miles aside?can be risky because failures in trucks? refrigeration systems or storage problems in warehouses lead to spoilage. On the consumer side of the equation, consumer tastes and trends come into play. For example, the recent explosion in popularity of Greek yogurt has left a glut of skim milk, which is a by-product of production that dairies are unable to sell either as milk for drinking or for use in another product. As a result, the milk is often simply poured down the drain.
And shoppers themselves are part of the problem. When they seek out pristine produce and condemn the less-than-perfect items, such as slightly blemished apples or overripe bananas, they leave them languishing at the store, eventually to wind up in the trash. And even once food reaches consumers, another large percentage ends up thrown away. Bread, which has been called the staff of life for millennia, ranks as one of the top most wasted food products. And food experts estimate that there are more bananas thrown away by households than are eaten.
Is this down to modern society being simply more wasteful than previous generations? This is a difficult question to answer because it is so complex. Looking at the historical context of food, the focus of people’s existence has been one of survival. Growing, gathering, and paying for food has been a volatile part of survival for centuries?until recently. Improvements in agriculture practices and technology has made food increasingly cheap for those of us lucky to live in the developed world. Even during the 1950s, thirty percent of a household’s income was spent on food, whereas today it is less than ten percent. I think that because of the access to a wide variety of food available pretty much whenever we desire it (Strawberries in March? Sure! Apples all the way from New Zealand? Not a problem!) the relationship we have with food as become skewed. The prevalence of celebrity chefs and the countless numbers of television shows focused on eating and food has made our relationship with food commoditized into something that exists more for our entertainment, not for our sustenance. People forget that, not long ago, the threat of famine due to crop failure was still real across the globe, and less than a century ago there was food rationing during the second world war.
But even though there has been a gradual increase in the awareness of food waste, solutions seem to be even slower to come. Unlike other countries, Canada does not keep statistics on food waste and does not have any sort of national strategy to address the issue. The University of Guelph has been conducting the first large scale research study into food waste as part of its Guelph Food Waste Research Project, but this is the only such study in Canada. There is currently no mandate for government legislation to change Canadians? wasteful food habits. In contrast, France made headlines in February, 2016 when it passed national legislation banning supermarkets, food production companies, and restaurants from tossing food in the garbage if it could be used in another way, such as being passed to homeless charities. And the United Kingdom government initiated its successful Love Food, Hate Waste campaign in association with the food industry, charities, and concerned individuals who are trying to greatly reduce the amount of tossed food while raising consumer consciousness.
Still, there are small, hopeful signs in Canada that the problem of how much food gets thrown away is being recognized. The grocery chain, Loblaws, has introduced It’s “Less Than Perfect” fresh fruit and vegetable range. Trials are still ongoing as to whether this will be a viable, long term consumer choice. Many retailers already donate day-old products to food banks and charities, but there is growing realization that food waste is such a large issue that these piecemeal efforts will not be enough to completely eliminate it.
Canadian municipalities are also beginning to realize that wasted food creates a lot of issues for them in terms of the human and environmental resources required to deal with increased garbage. Many are instituting a green bin system, where any organic products, including used facial tissues, pet waste, and leftover cooked food is deposited in them, collected in weekly or bi-weekly collections, and composted. Calgary has already instituted its “green cart pilot program” in trial areas and will be rolling it out across the city in 2017 with the goal of diverting 70% of compostable material away from landfill.
But while these efforts are admirable, they do not really address the root of the problem. Is it possible for supermarkets, food suppliers, and families to truly get to zero food waste? Looking at my own family, this depends on changing a lot of bad habits?and change requires a lot of effort. Properly portioning out food when cooking, utilizing leftovers creatively, consciously being aware of food purchase habits and resisting bulk-buying or passing up special offers if the product isn’t needed, the best practices of food storage and home composting (in addition to any municipal programs) are just a few strategies that I try to use, but I know that I just get too busy at times to do them. But even then, I know that I need to be realistic. There will be times that I will forget about the contents of my fridge until food is no longer edible. My son can be a picky eater and I sometimes opt for convenience over my best intentions to make a from-scratch meal. On one level, it is scandalous to throw away food when I know that many Canadians are food insecure. I also feel a bit of indignation when I wonder why I should make the effort when so many others don’t seem to care what happens to the valuable resource that food is both to our bodies and the environment. But, from my brief look into the issue of food waste, I realize that food is not something we should ever take for granted.
Carla admits that at times she uses housework as a procrastination technique. She may not have that essay done, but the grout in her bathroom is incredibly clean.