Time for my third post on food systems!
Food waste is a pretty massive issue that most of us, whether corporations, business, policy makers, and consumers, overlook. There are some pretty shocking facts that a lot of us either don’t know, or don’t acknowledge. Of the issues I’ve been researching, I’m particularly interested to spark action on this one because it’s so significant, and is also such a tangible part of the sustainable food systems puzzle that we can tackle with equally tangible results. I hope this post will peak some interest in the topic and give you some inspiration for potential innovations!
Here’s a quick little anecdote to get you started: last week I was making a sandwich for lunch. I had just bought a new loaf of bread and I remembered a super informative TED talk I saw that mentioned how most places that sell sandwiches just throw out the ends of each loaf. I already thought this was completely ridiculous but I wanted to get an idea of the ratio of food consumed vs. food wasted. I counted the slices of my new loaf of Dempsters Whole Wheat - 16 slices. That’s 8 sandwiches if you include the ends and use all the slices. Sandwich stores throw out the ends, so at the very least 1 in 8 potential sandwiches are gone. Does that ratio sound familiar? It’s the same ratio of people in our world that go to bed hungry every night.1 Just think about that.
To deepen your understanding of how much we waste (or if you just like super-cool infographics), check out the World Food Clock. It’s a website that counts up from the second you open it and tells you how much food is produced, consumed, and wasted (according to FAO annual averages) each second. There’s other information on the site, like a representation of where food waste comes from in different regions. This is a quick and easy way to see how big of an issue food waste really is.
We waste an absurd amount of food. In Canada, roughly 40% of the food we produce goes to waste.2 It’s wasted at different stages, but so much of it is avoidable. You can check out where it gets wasted in the visual in the additional resources and also in the aforementioned TED Talk. 20% of our current food waste is unavoidable3, such as banana peels, cores, and tea bags, but food is estimated to make up 40% of our landfills, which creates large amounts of methane gas. Landfill methane is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas - 72% more powerful than carbon dioxide. The reason that it gets created in landfills and not composts is because food waste in landfills undergoes anaerobic decomposition meaning that it decomposes without sufficient access to oxygen. By contrast, compost undergoes aerobic decomposition (i.e. it has enough access to oxygen either by turning it or worms and other living organisms digesting it) and produces carbon dioxide, which is much less harmful than the landfill methane gas.4 Compost can actually be used rather than the landfill mass that is just rotting and eroding the environment. Major cities such as Toronto5 and New York6 have created composting programs where you can actually get your compost picked up at your door or go bring it to a drop-off site, so you don’t even need to buy your own composter.
On an individual basis we waste much more food than we realize because of our personal consumption choices. Why? For starters, we often make an assumption about taste (gustatory) by what we see (visual). Two totally different senses. They can be related, but I urge you to try a store-bought, fancy-looking tomato. Then, grow your own, or buy a home-grown or local small farm grown tomato. If you grow it yourself, I can almost guarantee it won’t look like the ones from the supermarket - perfectly round and plump - but yours should taste a hell of a lot better. It will probably take an experiment of this sort to convince yourself that looks often don’t matter. Plus, this could be a really interesting outreach or recruitment event (i.e. talking about misconceptions/assumptions).
Judging food by what we see creates excessive waste. It affects how we purchase food, leading to excessive waste at the grocery store but also causes us to throw out food prematurely. Grocery stores are tailoring their produce to appeal to us as consumers. This results in many farmers not being able to sell much of their crop because of cosmetic imperfections. This is really systemic, and leads to enormous food waste.
Another reason we waste so much is misunderstanding. Expiration dates are not deadlines, rather they are what the manufacturers put on the label to identify the peak of quality. Almost all products with expiration dates on them are actually not required to be labelled.7
Lack of creativity also causes us to not be as minimal with food waste as we can be. We can incorporate leftover vegetables into soup. With fruit that’s getting too ripe we can make a smoothie or juice. We can make croutons from stale bread. There are so many things we can do to reduce our waste.
Although it’s still an enormous problem, there are some people out there taking some really amazing initiatives. Fruta Feia was created by Isabel Soares out of Portugal and was featured in the New York Times in May for their initiative. Soares goes to farmers directly asking to purchase their food that has been rejected by supermarkets. Since so much food simply does not meet the visual standards of the supermarkets even though it is completely edible, Soares buys this fruit for a discounted price and then resells it. The point of this is to provide affordable, nutritious food to more people while also eliminating huge amounts of food waste. The initiative started in November and now has 420 registered customers with over 1000 people on its wait list and has sold over 21 tons of food.8 If this food was not sold to consumers, it would just be thrown out or used as feed. It’s a win-win situation for everyone - the farmer makes more money, the consumer pays less for their food ($6.81 for a membership fee and $4.77 per 8lb box of food), and there’s a considerable amount of food saved!
Here’s another cool innovation: an ethylene-absorbing strip by It’sFresh. Ethylene is the compound that causes food to rot, and the It’sFresh strip can give 1-3 extra days of shelf life. At the end of April, It’sFresh announced a goal of preventing 10 million pounds of food waste by 2015. Tesco, a major supermarket chain in Europe, has adopted this technology and Tesco has just opened an office in the United States as well. This is an interesting example of using technology to make our world a more sustainable place.
These are a couple of innovations that could help us tackle the very real issue of food waste. I’d love to hear what you think of them, what other innovations you’ve heard/thought of, and what other innovations you think could help us tackle food waste in Canada. Even if you or your chapter doesn’t try something related to food waste, I hope this post helps us all be more conscious of our food waste.
Did you know:
In Europe and North America consumers waste per capita 95-115 kg/year of food, while is Sub-Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia this figure is a mere 6-11 kg/year.3
In developing countries over 40% of food losses occur at post-harvest and processing levels, but in industrialized countries over 40% of food losses occur at retail and consumer levels.3
Excluding fish and seafood, there is an estimated $USD750 billion of food wasted (1.3 billion tons) globally each year, equivalent to the GDP of Switzerland.9
We waste ⅓ of the food we produce globally.9
On average, Canadians contribute $620 of avoidable food waste per person annually, a total of $21.6 Billion.10
~1400kcal of food is wasted per day per capita in the US, or 150 trillion kcal annually, with food waste accounting for more than 25% of freshwater consumption, and ~300 million barrels of oil annually.11
If food waste was a country, it would rank as the third largest contributor of CO2 emissions (3.3 Gtonnes = 3.3 Billion Tonnes)7,12
Food for Thought:
Many people think that they are not wasteful and that much of their food waste is unavoidable, but as we can see from statistics comparing North America waste averages to Sub-Saharan Africa waste averages, it is possible to waste a lot less than we currently do. How can we go about changing the paradigm of the average person to realizing that food waste is a major issue and to actually do something about it?
1 FAO. The Multiple Dimensions of Food Security. 2014.
2 McGinn, D. How Much Food Does Canada Waste in a Year? Think Billions October 1st, 2012.
3 Gustavsson J, Cederberg C, & Sonesson U. Global Food Losses and Food Waste. 2011.
4 WIH Research Group. Composting Gases vs. Landfill Methane Gases. December 26th, 2009.
5 Toronto. Yard Waste, Lawns, & Composting. 2014.
6 NYC Department of Sanitation. Organics in NYC. 2014.
7 Lawrernce, S. Do Food Expiration Dates Really Matter? 2014.
8 Minder, R. Tempting Europe with Ugly Fruit. May 24th, 2014.
9 FAO. Food Wastage Footprint. 2013.
10 Gooch M, Felfel A, & Marenick N. Food Waste in Canada. November, 2010.
11 Hall K, Guo J, Dore M, & Chow C. The Progressive Increase of Food Waste in America and Its Environmental Impact. November 25th, 2009.
12 EDGAR. CO2 time series 1990-2011 per region/country. June 23, 2014.