This article is part of Globe B.C.'s eight-part weekly series on food security in Canada. Visit this page for the rest of the series so far.
At home and at work, waste-conscious Canadians such as Debra Lawson and Diana Chard have little tolerance for letting food go bad and tossing it out.
Ms. Lawson, executive director of the Toronto food-rescue organization Second Harvest, and Ms. Chard, a Halifax registered dietitian, as well as food industry members, humanitarian and environmental organizations and even some governments, are part of a massive effort to reduce food waste. Such waste is a major threat to food security, defined by the World Health Organization as the universal access to safe and nutritious foods.
A 2013 United Nations report says 1.3 billion tonnes of food, about a third of the world's supply, are wasted annually, costing global economies $750-billion (U.S.) and negatively impacting the environment – at a time when 1.2 billion people are living in extreme poverty.
Unlike the food industry, which largely focuses on how food waste affects the bottom line, Ms. Lawson and Ms. Chard see its impact on everyday lives in Canada – where, according to research, seven billion kilograms of food (or 40 per cent of all food produced) is lost along the "food value chain" at a cost of about $27-billion.
Ms. Lawson says Second Harvest, which picks up mostly perishable foods that would otherwise have been thrown away, helps to feed 100,000 people in Toronto every month.
Since it was founded in 1985, Second Harvest, working on donations from grocers, restaurants and other sources, has delivered more than 18 million kilograms of food to community agencies to feed the needy.
"It's an incredible dichotomy in this city – there's an abundance of food and so many people that need to be fed," Ms. Lawson says. "What we do is connect the two."
Ms. Chard says research indicates that about half of all food waste originates in households, so attacking the problem at the consumer level comes down to education and changing attitudes. She says misconceptions about food labels, such as best-before dates, mean consumers consistently throw out perfectly safe and nutritious foods. For instance, a best-before date on prepackaged food doesn't mean it's dangerous to eat; it simply means the food may have lost some freshness, flavour and nutritional value.
Ms. Chard says many families also tend to buy foods without a strategy, so she encourages buying only what can be used within a certain period of time, properly storing and refrigerating foods to get maximum life, and eating any leftovers.
"A lot of it is about planning, like shopping with a list so you have a purpose for everything you're buying – and don't buy impulsively," she says.
To experts such as Martin Gooch, an adjunct professor at Ontario's University of Guelphwith nearly three decades of experience in the agri-food industry, the problem of food waste goes deeper than consumer behaviour.
"We're managing the symptoms [of food waste] relatively well, but we need to manage the determinants of food waste because it's the system that creates it," says Dr. Gooch, CEO of VCM International based in Oakville, Ont., and director of its division, the Value Chain Management Centre, which helps agri-food businesses become more profitable and competitive. "Food waste is a complex problem; it will not be [solved] by simple solutions."
According to a recent report from the food-and-beverage industry advocacy group Provision Coalition, which includes Dr. Gooch's research, 51 per cent of wasted food in Canada comes from households, and he partly blames developed countries' "attitude of abundance and affluence." Waste also occurs in these parts of the food chain:
Processing and packaging (18 per cent): Due to quality of the foods when they're received, inaccurate forecasting, not refrigerating foods properly, improper handling by employees, and poor setup of machines.
Retail stores (11 per cent): inaccurate forecasting, food safety concerns, the growing popularity of ready-made food, and fluctuations in suppliers' delivery times.
Farming (9 per cent): climate change and weather extremes, incorrect planting and harvesting, labour shortages and overproduction.
Restaurants and other food-service members (8 per cent): too much food served, larger menu options, mistakes in preparing the foods, and improper handling and storage.
Transportation and distribution (3 per cent): food damage, poor recordkeeping, allowing foods to exceed their shelf life, and poor packaging and storage.
Where does Canada stand?
Dr. Gooch was on a panel at this year's National Food Security Forum at the University of Guelph, Ont., that heard food waste accounts for a significant portion of the waste stream in industrialized countries, resulting in ecological damage. A report released last month the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) indicates that behind total emissions from China and the U.S., food waste – much of which ends up in landfills – is the largest source of global greenhouse-gas emissions, an estimated 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent. Research in Canada estimates 20 per cent of greenhouse gases from landfills – with rotting food accounting for much of the waste.
Canada lags behind many developed countries in the fight against food waste because the "lack of co-ordination and planning across the industry – including in the areas of gathering and distribution – are impacting the entire system," Dr. Gooch says.
"We [Canada] haven't got as widespread broad initiatives to combat food waste – most that are in place were developed by the industry with little government support, so we don't have one overarching, ongoing, high-profile initiative such as WRAP [the Waste and Resources Action Programme] in the U.K.; the Netherlands is also doing quite a bit in the area, and even the U.S. is ahead of us. Government and industry have to take joint responsibility."
Many grocery chains are developing food waste-reduction action plans as part of their corporate responsibility efforts. For instance, Loblaw Companies Ltd., with about 1,250 grocery stores across Canada, has a three-decade food donation relationship with Second Harvest, says company spokesman Kevin Groh. As part of efforts to prevent waste from happening at the source, the company has introduced vacuum-sealed meat with less packaging that also extends foods' life.
Mr. Groh says Loblaw has also "taken tangible steps to shorten the supply-chain process," including through its "Field to Fork" program – where transport trucks can collect produce, for example, from a single pickup point at consolidation centres in growing regions.
"We're getting more sophisticated in the way we order and send fresh goods to stores," Mr. Groh says. "If we send too little product to stores we run the risk of disappointing customers, if we send too much we'll have waste. Getting the volumes and timing just right is quite a science. It requires knowledge of everything from historic sales patterns to expected weather. Our systems are allowing us to refine those assessments and to make sure we're ordering the right amounts of products at the right time."
Marie-Claude Bacon, senior director, corporate affairs and corporate responsibility for Montreal-based Metro Inc., which operates stores in Ontario and Quebec, says: "From a business perspective, we really need to avoid waste as much as possible."
As well as consumer and classroom education programs on using food wisely, Metro partnered this year with Quebec Food Banks distributor Moisson Montréal. During one recent five-week period, 9,985 kilograms of food valued at about $60,000 were donated, and the company is considering a similar program in Ontario.
As part of efforts at the store level, Metro committed in 2010 to reduce the amount of waste disposal by 25 per cent by 2016, including by developing new recycling programs, which after just a few months had contributed to the company reaching 24 per cent of its goal. Metro's 2014 Corporate Responsibility Report also says it has introduced better packaging, works at making refrigerated trucks more efficient, and sends part of the organic waste that does result to methanization plants that transform it into biogas.
What is "food waste," exactly?
"There is no clear commonly agreed upon definition of food waste ... and, therefore, no common measures of food waste and its impact on businesses and the environment," says a 2014 report commissioned by the Provision Coalition, an advocacy group for the Canadian food and beverage industry.
"Food waste is not a high priority for many businesses," primarily because most businesses do not really know how much food they waste and the real impact on profitability, according to the report titled "Developing an Industry Led Approach to Addressing Food Waste in Canada," co-authored by Martin Gooch, an agri-industry expert.
Dr. Gooch says "you have to clarify food waste" to find solutions to the problem, which poses one of the most daunting threats to global food security.
The consulting firm VCM International says while research indicates as much as 40 per cent of food is wasted in Canada at a cost of $27-billion across the food value chain, it "is currently working on a revised report to quantify the more realistic figure." The Provision Coalition report also cites 2013 research that indicates food waste in Canadian homes, restaurants and institutions (mostly from produce, meat and seafood) rose 77 per cent, from 4.1 billion kilograms in 1961 to 7.3 billion kilograms in 2009 – "equal to about 37 per cent of total food available for consumption."
Statistics on the amount and cost of food that is wasted in some other countries, and what their governments are doing to combat the problem:
The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), a non-profit funded by all governments in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as the European Union, was created in 2000 to help reduce waste and use resources efficiently. WRAP research indicates the amount of household food waste alone in the U.K. dropped 8.3 million tonnes to seven million tonnes over a five-year period ended in 2012 – a drop of 15 per cent, enough to fill 2,600 Olympic swimming pools.
An estimated 60 billion kilograms of food was wasted in 2010, so the Department of Agriculture joined with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with support from private-sector companies, in 2013 to launch a Food Waste Challenge – urging all levels of the food chain to reduce, recover and recycle food waste.
Calling food waste "a social and economic problem," the Dutch government estimates 0.8 billion kilograms of food, valued at 2.5 billion euros (about $3.15-billion US), is wasted at the consumer level alone. At the major Food Waste Conference: No Opportunity Wasted in London in February, 2014, the Dutch government committed to work at reducing food waste by 20 per cent in 2015, compared with 2009, with aims to better clarify waste figures and support industry in its waste-reduction efforts, better educate consumers about food waste, and examine whether products with long shelf lives could be exempted from carrying a "best-before" date on labels.