Top New Year’s food resolution is reducing waste

Canada generates more food waste per capita than any other country in the world. Every year, close to 60 per cent of food produced in Canada is wasted. That’s more than 35 tonnes of food.

Considering the energy and resources required to produce this food, the link between food waste and our climate challenges is becoming more obvious – and politicized.

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About 10 per cent is unavoidable waste – inedible products, such as bones, parts of produce or unwanted scraps, for example. But the avoidable waste is massive.

The average Canadian consumer throws out an estimated 170 kg of food a year. On a national scale, that’s the equivalent of 61 CN Towers. Every time a shopper leaves the supermarket, almost 40 per cent of what’s in the cart will go to waste. That’s real food and real money.

Food waste is no longer just a trivial subject we think about from time to time. It’s about the planet. According to a recent survey conducted by Angus Reid, 53 per cent of Canadians intend to reduce waste as much as possible in 2020. It was the top new year’s resolution for Canadians regarding food – more popular than cooking, losing weight, or even eating more fruits and vegetables. Our collective focus on food waste is clear.

For decades, food waste was largely ignored or invisible. Now, many of us are concerned about it. Indulgence and affordability were once the biggest food issues for most of us, and our food economy never really considered the negative externalities that came with our focus on abundance.

At one time, food waste was just an issue for organizations working on the margins of our food industry. Second Harvest in Toronto and other non-profits committed to food rescuing way before the food waste issue went mainstream. Most of these organizations have been successful in repurposing food to feed those in need, but their capacity is always cruelly limited.

But food companies have realized that tackling waste can be beneficial and profitable.

We’ve seen the ugly fruit and vegetable campaigns come and go, with varying levels of success.

Large grocers have been selling esthetically imperfect produce at a discount, giving the naturally imperfect products a fighting chance to reach market. Some claimed consumers could get a 30 per cent discount. But given how volatile and unpredictable pricing can be in that section of the grocery store, consumers weren’t sure discounting really occurred. While the idea had merit, the initiative hasn’t show that it reduces food waste all the way along the food supply chain.

We’ve also seen the trays of food close to its due date set up in some dodgy corner of the grocery store. But recently, those displays have become more visible and more frequently visited by consumers.

But grocers are hardwired to make money selling high-quality, fresh products. From a business sense, retailing rescued food is almost counterintuitive, which is why retailers’ reluctancy is so painfully understandable.

More consumers now look for ways to reduce food waste and save money. They’re also expecting substantial results and grocers know it.

Loblaws opted for an app called Flashfood, and IGA and Metro in Quebec have recently launched a new initiative in partnership with an app called FoodHero. It's a simple solution for shoppers: they use the app to buy unsold items that are still perfectly good to eat, at prices marked down by 25 to 60 per cent. Consumers bid on items approaching their best-before date.

It’s a great concept but the business case is still in progress. Neither app has made a profit yet but the uptake appears to be promising. Time will tell.

We’re also seeing how food waste can serve another completely different economic purpose. Toronto’s newest biogas facility is a perfect example. Organic waste, or compost, will be diverted to an anaerobic digester to produce biogas. Starting in March 2020, several Toronto garbage trucks will be partially fuelled by renewable natural gas made from food waste.

Food waste is not only the food industry’s responsibility. We can only gain by seeing more municipalities and other organizations getting involved in such initiatives.

As food rescuing receives greater focus, we can expect the industry to look for more ways to address the issue – and very publicly.

But given modern lifestyles and the fact we eat out more often than at home, it may be that we simply buy too much food at the grocery store. This is certainly not something the industry wants to hear but our way of life has changed dramatically over the years.

We go to the grocery store without a plan about what and how to cook, and we don’t think about how to repurpose leftovers after a large meal.

That’s food for thought!

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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