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Wasting Away

It’s long been known that Canadians are among the world’s most wasteful of water. We are just as bad, if not worse, with food.

Researchers with the George Morris Centre at the University of Guelph recently came out with numbers that by any definition are shocking.

A whopping $27 billion in food – more than the combined GDP of the world’s 32 poorest countries – is lost due to waste annually in Canada (see page 12). That’s 40 per cent of the food this country produces, representing two per cent of this country’s GDP.

Looked at another way, it’s slightly lower than the value of all of Canada’s agriculture and agri-food exports in 2007, and greater than the value of all the food this country imported in 2007.

Martin Gooch, the lead researcher on the report, says the numbers the research team came up with are conservative, based on cross-checking existing data with anecdotal observations from industry.

And it only equates to the waste that ends up in the landfills and compost piles. “If we used the lean manufacturing definition of waste, which is that waste includes any activity that costs more than the value that it creates, then the true extent of agri-food waste impacting Canada’s agri-food industry, the economy and the environment is much greater,” the paper says.

The study’s authors say “food miles” and plastic packaging have been wrongly demonized in the whole waste equation. Local food-distribution networks that are poorly co-ordinated can lead to higher levels of waste.

It’s a good news story for farmers and those responsible for managing the handling and transportation of food.

An estimated nine per cent of the food produced by farmers is lost to waste before it reaches the market. There is an estimated three per cent slippage in the transportation and distribution network.

Those numbers are small in comparison to home waste, where 51 per cent of food is wasted, and to packaging and processing at 18 per cent.

But the study team said risk-management programs and marketing regulations tend to mask market signals to the farmer. They encourage a production-as-usual mentality and sometimes actively discourage innovators.

Besides, farmers have a bigger stake in this issue than looking at what happens on their own operations. They are the producers, the ones targeted by the rhetoric that says foodproductionmust double by 2050 in order to feed the world’s growing population.

As the George Morris study points out, there are enormous resources from both the private and public sectors being poured into various strategies designed to increase production. “Far fewer resources are invested in making more effective use of the food already produced,” the study says.

It’s not just the uneaten food that is lost. “It is the energy, the water, packaging, and human resources used in production, transportation, retailing/food service and home storage.”

Key resources that farmers use to produce that food – namely fuel and fertilizer – are non-renewable and the cost of acquiring them is rising. There is the impact intensive farming practices can have on the land, such as soil erosion and declining water quality. Food that is thrown out rots in landfills, adding to the methane and carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.

And there is the economic pressure on farmers to produce ever more under declining margins as their costs continue to rise.

Government support programs step in to fill in the gap, which consumes revenues that could be going to other priorities, such as health and education.

And for what? So consumers can throw half of it away. Farmers can’t afford to keep doing this. Neither can the rest of us.

Consumer attitudes are shaped in part by marketing schemes based on volume discounts that encourage bulk buying and increased losses due to waste.

Likewise, farmers’ focus on production is also shaped by marketing, primarily by the industry that sells production-related supports. Attend the research field tours for any commodity produced here on the Prairies and you’ll hear lots about the latest varieties, products and strategies to boost yields, but precious little on how to properly calibrate the combine or prevent losses due to insects or moulds in storage.

Research into reducing or eliminating waste in the food chain needs to be a higher priority. So does an investment in greater public awareness. Canada lags behind places such as Europe in assisting businesses with identifying the causes of waste and developing reduction strategies.

With a little help from the rest of us, farmerscanfeed the world – without pushing one more acre into production, without adding another tonne of fertilizer, and without going broke. [email protected]

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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