• Kate Ayers

The food that doesn't reach the plate

Updated: May 20, 2020

The time is ripe to find and enact solutions to Canada’s massive food waste problem, industry leaders say.

Imagine opening a dumpster and tossing your brand-new big-screen television in. Or opening your wallet, allowing two-thirds of your money to fall out and leaving the cash on the ground.

Both scenarios seem crazy, right? Well, in a sense, they are not far from reality, as the average Canadian household spends $1,766 annually on food that it wastes, the Recycling Council of Ontario’s website says.

Indeed, each year, 58 per cent – or 35.5 million metric tonnes (78.3 billion pounds) – of the food that Canadian farmers produce is lost or wasted, Second Harvest Food Rescue and Value Chain Management International Inc. (VCMI) say in a 2019 technical report.

In total, 32 per cent of this waste was avoidable. This food could have helped feed some of the four million Canadians who lack secure access to healthy food.

Second Harvest Food Rescue is Canada’s largest food rescue organization, recovering surplus food from across the supply chain and re-directing it to social service organizations and schools that rely on fresh, healthy food in their programs.

VCMI’s global consulting team, which is based in Canada, Europe and Australasia, focuses on improving the profitability and competitiveness of agri-food businesses by promoting improved management of the value chains in which they operate, its website says.

“The current food waste problem is not the fault of any individual or any individual organization,” says Dr. Martin Gooch, CEO of VCMI.

Instead, the problem is “a fault of how the food system operates. This situation is outside the influence of any individual business, policies, regulations and strategic directions that industry groups set for their members.”

Better Farming spoke to food industry organizations, policy analysts, an innovative beef farmer and other food waste experts to learn how Canadians can tackle food waste. These industry leaders explain how we can reduce inefficiencies and waste throughout the supply chain. They also highlight the challenges that consumers and governments need to overcome.

What is food waste? In Canada, we do not have an agreed-upon definition of food waste, so the problem is harder to tackle, the website of the Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series says. The lack of clarity makes food waste hard to measure and quantify.

Second Harvest Food Rescue and VCMI address this issue by combining the terms “food loss” and “waste” (FLW). The compound term refers to the discarding of resources throughout the value chain, stretching from producer to consumer.

FLW includes the food that

· companies discard throughout production and processing

· companies discard through distribution and retail (grocery and food service)

· consumers purchase but do not eat

Food waste has significant economic effects for both industry stakeholders and consumers.

The annual cost of avoidable food waste in Canada is $49.5 billion, says Dr. Ralph Martin, a plant agriculture professor at the University of Guelph. This value was 3 per cent of Canada’s gross domestic product in 2016.

In addition to the costs, FLW has environmental and societal effects.

“If (global) food loss were a country, it would have the third-largest (output of) greenhouse gas emissions after the United States and China,” says Bruce Taylor, the president of Enviro-Stewards Inc.

“It would also be one of the top water consumers on the planet.”

Enviro-Stewards Inc. of Elmira helps businesses improve their long-term sustainability, the company’s website says.

In Ontario, FLW contributes to our greenhouse gas emissions.

Two-thirds of “Ontario’s food and organic waste is sent to landfills,” says Gary Wheeler, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks.

“In a landfill, (food and organic waste) break down to create methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. In fact, methane is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Industry challenges

Inefficiencies and lack of awareness in the supply chain can cause FLW before the food reaches consumers.

“Our food system has never been designed; it has just evolved,” says Gooch.

Typically, food processors “focus on waste diversion, not waste prevention.”

Simply diverting food waste away from landfills “does not require fundamental change. The process requires limited investment to be effective and poses limited risk to government and industry,” he explains.

In addition, the food industry does not have uniform metrics or enforced protocols for measuring the amount of FLW that occurs at each step in processing. This lack of information makes it challenging for stakeholders to find solutions, says Lori Nikkel, CEO of Second Harvest Food Rescue.

If businesses understood how much food they waste, they would change their mindsets, she says.

The food industry also resists change because of the price tag associated with system updates, says Gooch. Some businesses are unwilling to collaborate to promote change. They fear the loss of their competitive advantage.

Food processors also often underestimate the value of lost food, Taylor says.

“For example, a waste-to-energy facility charged the Campbell Soup Co. $100 (per) tonne to receive 13 tonnes (per year) of chicken and beef that was left in processing equipment during product changeovers,” he says.

“However, the actual cost (to the Campbell Soup Co.) was $10,000 (per) tonne to buy the chicken and beef plus $100 (per) tonne to destroy it.”

Nikkel agrees.

“Inside every business, there is an acceptance of waste, and it’s (considered) the cost of doing business,” she says. “People aren’t seeing the value” of preventing FLW.

Despite these industry challenges, many stakeholders want to donate food. However, legislative barriers and policies deter many individuals and companies from enacting such policies.

For farmers, crop insurance is one of those hurdles.

“There are situations where farmers have unharvested crops they would love to donate (such as apples or carrots), but crop insurance stipulates that you can’t harvest an unmarketable crop, donate it and submit a claim for not being able to harvest that crop,” says Ian Nokes, an OFA farm policy analyst.

“It would be great if crop insurance could validate that the crop isn’t marketable but recognize that it is still viable for donation. We would like to see improvements made to the regulations.”

Satisfying solutions

Throughout the supply chain, stakeholders have many options to lessen the economical, environmental and societal effects of FLW.

“We have to be creative and think outside the box,” Nikkel says.

The food processing and retail sectors need to rethink their business models, Gooch says.

“All businesses along the chain are typically obsessed with volume, weight and price,” he says. “So, part of the solution is to replace this obsession with a focus on quality, value and margin.”

Producers, processors and retailers also hesitate to make food donations because of worries over liability and risk.

However, “the Ontario Donation of Food Act, 1994, encourages donations, with certain limitations, and protects food donors from liability as a result of injuries caused by the consumption of donated food,” Wheeler says.

Farmers who donate food to local charities are also eligible for tax incentives.

“The Ontario community food program donation tax credit for farmers provides tax credits of 25 per cent to farmers who recover and donate agricultural products to eligible programs,” Wheeler says.

Simply raising awareness about FLW could encourage stakeholders to investigate and enact solutions. This approach would teach consumers how farmers produce food and how to properly store it.

“For me, (FLW) boils down to one thing: we, as Canadians, do not value food,” says Nikkel.

“If we valued food for its intrinsic nutritional properties, then we would treat it very differently. Right now, we look at (food) as a commodity and we have an abundance of it … So, we just don’t value it the way it should be” valued.

Martin agrees that consumers have lost touch with their sources of food. He wants schools to increase education about food awareness and food skills.

“Food awareness would help re-establish our relationship with food and the possibilities for food,” he says.

Food awareness “could lead to more food preservation, more cooking and less food waste,” he adds.

The federal government could also educate people about best-before dates. Many people believe that the government regulates these dates, but it does not.

“Best-before dates are often really marketing to generate more sales,” says Nokes. “There are bottles of water with best-before dates.

“It’s second nature for us to obey the dates and throw out stuff that is not in any way compromised. It would be very good for food recovery to lock down realistic best-before or use-by dates.”

At the processor level, we need to find ways to help companies to increase their efforts to preserve perishable foods, Nokes adds.

For example, these businesses could freeze or dehydrate foods to make soups for donation. A tax incentive could make this option possible for food processors.

The government could also raise the cost of garbage disposal to help deter waste production.

“It’s so cheap to use the landfill,” says Gooch.

But “if government made landfills more expensive, it would have an immediate impact on how businesses operate.”

Everyone has a role to play in FLW reduction. Individual actions have a cumulative effect and can encourage others to make changes in their daily routines. As consumers, we can carefully plan our purchases to cut down the potential for food waste and avoid getting too focused on best-before dates. As farmers, we can explore options to donate food to local charities and urge changes to government policies that limit our donation options.

And now might be the perfect time for this work. The federal government has promised in Budget 2019 to invest $134.4 million in a national food policy. As officials develop the new strategy, which promises to reduce food waste, we need to promote improvements throughout the supply chain, stakeholders say. BF

WASTE NOT, WANT NOT: FARMERS TACKLE FOOD WASTE Some producers reduce food loss and waste by feeding discarded fruits, vegetables and grains to their livestock.

Mike Buis, a beef cattle producer in Chatham-Kent, has collaborated with grocers and food processors for the last 15 years. Buis farms with his daughter Theresa.

“In the area of the province we are in, land values are very high and pasture ground is at a premium,” Buis says.

“I wanted to raise more cows but couldn’t afford to do it on our land. So, I needed to find alternatives.”

He began growing cover crops and feeding food waste to his cows.

Buis got in touch with businesses in his area through word of mouth and the production contracts that he had with local processing plants.

Bonduelle Canada Inc., a local sweet corn processing plant, provides Buis with husks, cobs and any discarded kernels for his cattle.

“It’s waste product (for them) but makes good silage for us,” Buis says.

He also gets shipments of fruits and vegetables from other companies.

“We get some carrots from Bolthouse Farms in Wheatley and Kevin and Jason Stallaert in Pain Court,” he adds.

Buis receives the “oversized carrots, peels, tops and any kind of discard they have in those processing plants.”

On occasion, “we get parsnips, red beets, and sometimes sweet potatoes and white potatoes,” he says.

Over the years, one of the issues that Buis had to address was the non-food waste – such as steel, plastic and rubber gloves – that came in some vegetable shipments.

He spoke with his processors and retailers, explaining that he was using the food waste for cattle feed and it needed to be contaminant free. Ever since, the suppliers have taken better care to ensure the deliveries are clean.

Since vegetables contain a high percentage of water, Buis has built a separate storage space to contain the seepage from the carrots and sweet corn silage.

“I have a liquid manure pit that the wastewater can run into. I also have a liquid tanker that sucks the wastewater up, and I use it as fertilizer on my fields,” Buis says.

Buis’s cattle enjoy the alternative feed.

“They have a little trouble eating coconuts,” he says.

And “if we feed carrots in our finishing ration, then it turns the animal’s fat an interesting yellowy-orange colour, which makes it difficult to sell.”

However, the cattle will “walk away from green pasture to come and eat carrots and other food products. They love the change and the sweetness of the different things they can eat.” BF


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