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What a waste!

Nearly 60% of food produced in Canada is wasted, says a new study. Time to rethink how we value food

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It’s hardly news that Canada is wasteful; in fact, we’ve long been told we’re among the world’s worst offenders when it comes to food waste. A new report, however, reveals the shocking extent to how wasteful we really are.

“We waste more food in Canada than we consume,” said Lori Nikkel, CEO of Second Harvest, the food rescue organization that partnered with Value Chain Management International (VCMI) on the year-long study into the issue of food waste. According to The Avoidable Crisis of Food Waste report, 58% of the food produced in Canada is lost or wasted. While some of that is waste that can’t be helped, Nikkel said about 32% of lost and wasted food is avoidable and could be rescued.

Put another way, each year 11.2 million metric tons of food is unnecessarily lost or thrown away. “That’s enough food to fill a freight train that stretches from Ottawa to past Winnipeg,” Nikkel told reporters in January. The value of this wasted food is pegged at a whopping $49 billion.

According to the report, Canadians have become accustomed to an abundant supply of food, causing us to dismiss its intrinsic value. “We need to radically change how we value food,” said Nikkel, adding it is especially important to do when you consider four million Canadians are food insecure.

READ: Study finds more than half of food produced in Canada is wasted

The report also concludes that waste has become standard operating procedure for the food industry. This is a result of insufficient measurement of waste and a lack of collaboration, as well as the ease and low cost of sending waste to landfill.

“Most businesses do not recognize the scope of the opportunity” when it comes to addressing waste, says Martin Gooch, CEO of VCMI and an expert on food waste in Canada. “But the true cost of loss and waste is not borne by industry and it’s not borne by consumers. It’s borne by the environment.” According to the study’s authors, avoidable food loss and waste equates to 22.2 million tons of CO2 equivalence: the same amount of emissions of all cars in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta driving for a full year.

Funded by the Walmart Foundation—the retailer’s philanthropic arm—the report is the first of its kind, in that it captured primary data from across the food supply chain using a standardized measurement. The study’s authors consulted with more than 700 food industry experts including an advisory board comprised of large manufacturers and retailers such as Metro and Loblaw. The aim was to identify the root causes of food loss and waste at each part of the supply chain to come up with sustainable solutions.

Among the sobering facts revealed by the report is that the bulk (79%) of food loss and waste occurs at the hands of the food industry, not in households, which are often tagged as a chief culprit of waste. “It’s time we stop blaming the consumer,” said Nikkel.

While less waste occurs at retail than other areas of the industry such as production or processing/manufacturing, 12% of food loss and waste is still avoid- able in this sector. And this discarded food has a value of $5.7 billion.

The study identified about 30 root causes contributing to food waste, including acceptance by the food industry that waste is a cost of doing business; conservative and widely misunderstood best-before dates that result in the tossing out of safe, edible food; pressure on producers to provide 100% on-shelf availability and aesthetic perfection, particularly with produce, leading to overproduction; and industry reluctance to donate safe surplus food.

At retail, specifically, barriers to donating the 1.31 million tons of avoidable food waste comes down to confusion and lack of consistent public health regulations to determine when food is safe to donate, resulting in edible food going to landfill. Also, there’s the perceived cost and complexity of donation—you need resources (labour) to prepare food for donation, whereas shipping discarded food to landfill is cheap and easy. Liability concerns were also cited as a reason for not donating food.

What’s the solution? According to Gooch, there are three strategies: “Measure, lead, enable.” Measure what’s going on in your operation; lead by driving changes in business practices; and create an enabling environment for motivating and supporting industry, consumers and others to reduce food loss and waste wherever possible. The report provides a timeline for actions that industry can do now (2019), do soon (2020 to 2021) and for building a plan for 2022 and beyond. The actions range from engaging employees in redistribution initiatives to establishing collaborative planning, forecasting and replenishment programs, as well as investing in infrastructure and tech upgrades to enable further waste reductions.

“There is absolutely no reason that we cannot and should not drastically reduce our food loss and waste that occurs in this country,” said Gooch. “It requires concerted, collaborative effort at all levels of industry. We all have a responsibility to play in that.”

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’s February 2019 issue.

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