Next time you’re tempted to scrape leftovers into the garbage or toss out unused food in the refrigerator, consider this: Canadians waste about 40 per cent of all food produced in the country.
That mountain of edibles is worth $27 billion. That’s only slightly less than Canada’s agricultural and agri-food exports in 2007 and more than the entire tab for food purchased in restaurants in 2009. It’s also higher than the combined gross domestic product of the 32 poorest countries in the world.
Canadians are wasting food even as this country’s food and ag sectors invest heavily in ways to produce more of it, notesFood Waste in Canada: Opportunities to increase the competitiveness of Canada’s agri-food sector, while simultaneously improving the environment, a 16-page report released last week by the George Morris Centre.
“Far fewer resources are invested in making more effective use of the food already produced, even though doing so would have immediate results,” the report says. “More effectively managing the food that’s already been produced would significantly benefit our economy and our environment.”
Food is wasted at all levels from field to store, according to the report. Among the problems are over-production and/or poor flow of products through the food chain, product defects, unnecessary food inventories, inappropriate processing, excessive transportation, long wait times en route to market, and poor workplace design in the retail system.
But the biggest culprit is us. Consumers who throw out food they bought but never used are the single biggest contributors to waste, responsible for just over half (51 per cent) of the total amount, the report says.
Consumer behaviour turns food to garbage by cooking or preparing too much, not using up fresh food, and not using leftovers, the report says. Fresh and raw meat and fish; ready meals; dairy products; fruits and vegetables; and prepared foods are the most likely items to wind up in a landfill.
This behaviour stems from a culture accustomed to having it all, all the time, says the report’s author Martin Gooch, director of the GMC’s Value Chain Management Centre.
“We’re a consumer society,” said Gooch. “We use things. We look for value. We want immediate gratification. When you’re thinking that way you’re thinking about the enjoyment of something, or the availability of it, you’re not looking at the potential scarcity of it.”
The result, the report notes, is not only massive waste of food, but squandering of other resources such as the energy and water used to produce it, as well as the packaging and human resources used in production.
And when the problem is looked at from a “lean manufacturing” perspective – that is, that waste includes any activity that costs more than the value it creates – the true cost of wasted food is even higher.
A new approach that takes the emphasis off low prices is needed, said Gooch.
“The industry needs to change how it approaches consumers,” he said. “There needs to be not so much emphasis on pushing volume at the sake of price. All of us do ourselves an injustice by trying to encourage consumers to buy a product on price, because it will invariably lead to a percentage of the population buying more products than they require.”
A change in approach requires an examination of the entire food chain, not merely one part of it.
Research done at the GMC’s Value Chain Management Centre found “significant opportunities exist for individual businesses and entire sectors to improve profitability and reduce waste by adopting value chain management principles.”
“We could use our current resources and double the amount of food available, or at least increase it by 50 per cent,” said Gooch.