Food Waste Is A $31 Billion Problem
By Terri Chu
Every year, roughly 40% of perfectly edible food that is grown and imported is thrown away. Of that, households account for half of the problem. Discarded food usually takes the form of unwanted leftovers, as well as imperfect food deemed unsalable, oversupply, and worst of all, supply management (throwing away food to keep prices high).
Part of the culprit is cheap food. Outside of northern areas, food doesn’t really cost that much in Canada. We often buy much more than we can eat and throw away lots of perfectly edible food.
Another part of the problem is our own demand for pretty-looking food. If an apple isn’t perfectly shaped or has a slight bruise, it will often end up rejected and discarded.
Whether food looks perfect or not, it takes a lot of energy, effort, and in some cases fertilizer and pesticide, to produce. Ultimately, the more we waste, the higher our greenhouse gas emissions are for food that doesn’t even make it into our stomachs.
The world watches anxiously as some of the largest producers of staples rapidly deplete groundwater resources to grow food that ultimately doesn’t get eaten.
The problem is a real one and it is big. A recent study suggests that the U.S., Pakistan, and India are the biggest exporters of food grown using unsustainable groundwater. When we run out of irrigation water, Malthus will be proven correct.
This is not the path we want to take. While it might mean lower profits for multinationals, I think it’s imperative we look at our eating habits and find ways to cut the waste.
Reducing waste can be as simple as finding creative ways to make leftovers more appealing or consciously cooking/ordering smaller quantities. As a woman who grew up with a quintessential Chinese grandmother, this can be a challenge. If people weren’t rolling away from your dinner table, you were viewed as having failed.
Our attitudes surrounding food need to change. The surge in wealth in China has created a middle class that views it as a status symbol to be able to afford to order large quantities of food and deliberately toss it. When my parents owned a restaurant and I observed this behaviour, despite it not being in our economic interests, I showed my disdain for it.
- If we treated food with even this basic level of respect, food waste could decrease substantially.
So at the household level, this is a problem we can all have a small impact on by taking a hard look at our own habits.
On a systemic level, we need stronger public policies that steer us in the right direction. The University of Toronto has a Food Systems Lab that is looking at this exact problem on a high level. The research they produce will hopefully inform future public policy makers on how to reduce this $31 billion problem. I suspect what they come up likely won’t be popular since industry tends to abhor change. It will be up to us to make sure we tell our lawmakers that reducing food waste, in any capacity, is something we are willing to vote for.
We can’t keep wasting our children’s future. The food we waste now is food they won’t have the opportunity to grow when the water has run out.
For more information on this topic, Why Should I Care? is hosting a talk on Food Waste at the Madison Avenue Pub on April 24, at 7pm. The event is free.
Terri Chu is an expert in energy systems, with a Masters in Engineering specializing in urban energy systems. Terri founded the grassroots organization "Why Should I Care", a not for profit dedicated to engaging people on issues of public policy.