In recent years the topic of food wastage has garnered increased attention in the United Kingdom and Europe, and is slowly gaining attention in North America. Food wastage occurs when perfectly good, edible food is deemed unusable and is sent for composting or disposal.
Why does food wastage matter?
Throwing away perfectly good food in the home and throughout the food production and distribution chain pointlessly uses up natural resources, generates greenhouse gases, and wastes money.
It takes a significant amount of energy and water to produce food. In Canada, where water is bountiful compared with other nations, agriculture was the fourth largest user of water, accounting for nine per cent of total water use in Canada in 2005. Irrigation accounted for most of the water use (at 92 per cent); livestock watering accounted for almost six per cent.
The agriculture sector contributed 62 million tonnes (or about nine per cent) of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2006, not including GHGs from associated energy use and transportation. Discarding food waste into landfills results in the generation of methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas, and/or requires additional money and resources to be composted.
If “Food Waste” was a category on the game show Jeopardy, some of the answer-questions might be:
Answer: 40 per cent
Question: From field to table, what portion of food produced and sold in Canada is wasted?
Answer: 51 per cent
Question: What percentage of the food wastage occurs in the home?
Answer: 20 per cent
Question: What portion of the food thrown out in the home is considered non-edible (comprising of peelings, cores, bones, etc.)?
Canadians throw out a lot of perfectly good food every year, resulting in economic, environmental and social implications. (See sidebar, page 10.). Most food wastage (about half) occurs in the home, with an additional one fifth occurring in the retail and food service sector. Together these three sources account for almost three quarters of food wastage occurring in Canada, as shown in Figure 1.
According to Statistics Canada’s 2009 Human Activity and the Environment report, in 2007 the amount of food wasted in Canadian homes and retail sector amounted to over six million tonnes, with another 2.8 billion litres of usable drinks (including milk, coffee, tea, pop and juices) discarded unnecessarily. The average Canadian discards 172–183 kg/capita/year of food in the retail sector and at home.
From an economic perspective, an estimated $27 billion worth of food is wasted annually, much of which occurs in retail, food service and home settings. In 2010, Statistics Canada reported that the average Canadian household spent about $7,500 on food purchases. This translates into $1,200 in wasted money due to 16 per cent of edible food being allowed to go to waste.
Why does food waste happen?
Most food wastage happens at the point of purchase and at the home. Grocery stores face pressure to display attractive fruits and vegetables (requirements considered important to the consumer) and to reject “cosmetically” imperfect fruits and vegetables and damaged goods. Grocery stores will cull fruits and vegetables that don’t meet specified size, shape and colour and discard damaged but perfectly edible goods. It’s estimated that, in North America, up to 30 percent of fruits and vegetables are rejected during harvesting and retail because they are not considered “cosmetically” acceptable.
To meet the increasing demands for convenience and ready-made foods, retailers are producing meals-to-go, prepared packaged fruit and salads, and freshly made baked goods. Consequently, retailers may overestimate demand for ready-made goods, resulting in the excess being thrown out at the end of the shift or day because they are no longer considered “fresh.”
According to a study released by the National Resources Defense Council, ready-made food (prepared meals such as sandwiches, pasta dishes and pre-made salads) makes up a large portion of food lost at convenience stores, which discard approximately 25 percent of their food products.
Confusion over “best before” and “sell by” dates on goods results in retailers and homeowners discarding edible food before they have actually expired. The United Kingdom Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) estimates that 20 per cent of food thrown out in the home is as a result of confusion over the “best before” date on the package.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency website has this to say about “best before” dates: “You can buy and eat foods after the ‘best before’ date has passed. However, when this date has passed, the food may lose some of its freshness and flavour, or its texture may have changed. Some of its nutritional value, such as vitamin C content, may also be lost. Remember that ‘best before’ dates are not indicators of food safety, neither before nor after the date. They apply to unopened products only. Once opened, the shelf life of a food may change.”
According to the UK WRAP, two-thirds of food thrown out in the home is attributed to food spoilage from not being used in time or assuming the food is no longer safe because it exceeded the “best before” date. Cooking and serving too much food at home results in the other one-third of food being wasted. This situation may be attributed to several factors:
• We eat more. Not only has the daily calorie intake of the average North American increased nine per cent in the past 20 years but the surface size of a dinner plate has increased 36 per cent between 1960 and 2007.
• Food is relatively cheap. Households today spend less on food than before according to Statistics Canada. In 1969, the average Canadian household spent 18.7 percent of their income on food and only 10.2 percent in 2009; and
• Food is sold in larger sizes. According to the US National Heart and Blood Institute, from 1982 to 2002, the average pizza slice grew 70 percent in size and calories. Last year Tim Hortons Canada modified its hot beverage drink sizes to harmonize with drink sizes in the United States. What was called a large sized Tim Horton coffee in early 2012 is now called a medium sized coffee today. Retail stores, such as Costco, sell food in large pre-packaged quantities, limiting the ability of the consumer to purchase smaller quantities. Consumers are exposed to larger portion sizes that may result in excessive food being prepared during mealtime.
How is food wastage being addressed?
In 2008, the UK WRAP launched its “Love Food Hate Waste” campaign to increase public-awareness about the need to reduce food waste. The campaign introduced easy and practical activities that homeowners could do to reduce food waste. The agency also worked with retailers to change promotions and practices resulting in further reduction in food wastage.
The success of this campaign has resulted in a reported 18 per cent decrease in household food waste in the five years since the implementation of the campaign. WRAP reports that the reduction in discarded food waste has resulted in a savings of around 17 million tonnes of CO2 (equivalent to the emissions of one in five cars on UK roads) and a reduction of four per cent
of the UK total water use.
The European Parliament has designated 2014 as the “European Year Against Food Waste” with a goal to cut food waste in half by 2025. The European Commission will launch a campaign focusing on education to avoid excessive waste, and proper labeling and packaging.
In December 2008, the European Com-mis-sion began to phase out regulations that specified acceptable size and shape of fruit and vegetables sold by retailers. As a result of these regulation changes, fruits and vegetables with “cosmetic imperfections” can be sold and no longer need to be discarded by retailers.
Food rescue and food share programs help to redistribute unused food. Programs such as Second Harvest, Food Share and Food Banks take food from retailers, restaurants and institutions and redistribute it to people in need. Second Harvest is the largest food rescue program in Canada; the Toronto branch of Second Harvest reports that it has prevented almost 32,000 tonnes of edible food from going to waste.
Some US states, such as California and Oregon, provide incentives to farmers to donate food to food banks. A 10 percent tax credit is given to farmers (within the state) based on the wholesale price of fresh fruits and vegetables donated to local food banks.
Work is being undertaken in Canada to address food waste as it occurs along the production, distribution and consumer chain. The Value Chain Management Centre, which develops sustainable solutions for agriculture businesses and industry in Canada, has addressed food wastage with its recent publication called Cut Waste, Grow Profit accessible at valuechains.ca/presentations.htm. This back-ground paper supported a forum held in November 2012 to further address food wastage issues.
Janet Robins is principal of Robins Environmental in Toronto, Ontario.
Contact Janet at
Environmental and Social Impacts Associated
with Food Wastage
Food wastage has environmental and social impacts domestically and internationally. Some published facts include:
• A report published by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the Untied Nation (2011) reports that globally about one third of food (or about 1.2 billion tonnes) produced for human consumption is wasted;
• Tristram Stuart, author of Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, estimated that 10 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions generated by industrialized countries come from growing food that is never eaten.
• According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), production of a single litre of milk requires 1,000 litres of water; production of one kilogram of beef requires 10 times more water input (16,000 litres) than the production of one kilogram of wheat (1,350 litres).
• The US Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) states in its August 2012 Wasted report, that food production uses 10 percent of the total US energy budget, 50 percent of US land, and 80 percent of freshwater consumed in the United States.
• A Columbia University article, “Wasting Food = Wasting Water,” claims that more water resources go into the production of food than any other use. In the US alone, it’s estimated that US citizens wasted 10.5 trillion gallons (40 trillion litres) of water associated with their annual wasted food. This is enough water to sustain almost 500 million people.