Abundance is our own nice first-world problem. It is why we are wasting so much food; because we are making huge gobs and selling it cheap. That’s according to our own experts in Canada: Dr. Martin Gooch, an adjunct professor at the University of Guelph and founder of food waste consultancy Value Chain Management International, in Oakville, Ontario, and Dr. Kate Parizeau, a waste scholar also at the University of Guelph who grew up next door to a landfill.
The problem according to Gooch is our food chain is irrational. “Volume is king…There is a desire to reduce the cost of food by selling more, and a consumer desire to buy more for less. We’ve made price a key factor in whether we buy one food over another,” he told the Walrus. In other words, when something comes cheap, we just don’t value it. Kate Parizeau’s Food Waste Research Group at Guelph pretty much confirms this observation in research in the City of Guelph: 85 per cent of townspeople feel deep personal guilt about all the food they waste, but most (74 per cent) also feel that food waste is a problem that should be blamed on and solved by individuals, she told a Sustain Ontario conference.
“Food waste joins the long list of other personal sins that have no name, in either municipal or food policy,” wrote The Rabble. And guilt leads us to avoid the topic altogether. Denial with a dash of despair.
The Food Waste Hierarchy
While we may not have a policy framework, we do have a hierarchy:
- Prevention: Considering that nearly the estimated half the food wasted in Canada comes from households, consumer education is key. But grocer education is also very important. In fact, the retailer/consumer dynamic is a major problem.
- Rescue: divert food to food banks and other similar organizations.
- Recycle: make food waste into livestock feed; this is one of the more dubious options
- Recovery: Anaerobic digestion, processes by which microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen and turned into energy.
- Disposal: in landfill or incineration.
Before we shape a policy around that hierarchy we need to play the name game a little more. In The Journal of Cleaner Production, Effie Papargyropoulou and fellow researchers propose a more subtle food waste hierarchy that makes clear boundaries between food waste and food surplus, and articulates a sustainable (read: rational and not volume driven) approach to food production, distribution and consumption.
The food industry may not be ready to wrap its corporate head around this one. For instance, Loblaws and Sobeys don’t break out food waste from overall waste, let alone food waste that might be deemed food surplus in a different light. We can’t expect grocers to restructure their proudly built food supply chain in response only to social and environmental issues rather than direct business issues. That’s what PR departments are for.
UK and France Take Lead
But that’s exactly what Gooch, a UK native, wants to do: to make it a business issue and restructure the supply process to achieve greater predictability and efficiency with less waste and greater profits. Moreover, Gooch believes the public needs more oversight and research to tell the full story of food waste in Canada. At the very least we could be following the UK and France where government and grocers are doing a lot more than us to reduce food waste.
“LoveFoodHateWaste”, the poster child campaign in the UK for food waste prevention, actually came out of the circular economy movement in 2007 led by the Waste & Resources Action Program (WRAP), a UK charity. The strategy is stunningly simple: educate people and grocers to love food and discourage waste. It’s an attempt to get the
values re-balanced and sustainable. The campaign claims billions of dollars saved since 2007 and food waste is down 21%. The campaign is catching on globally with Metro Vancouver, New Zealand, Australia, Wales Scotland and Northern Ireland, all with their own LoveFoodHateWaste sites. Indeed, it could be said this is evidence that it will be easier to change the public approach to food value than to change the industry’s approach.
While the UK is content with a voluntary agreement with grocers on food waste practices, France has taken it upon itself to tweak the food industry’s supply chain there. In landmark legislation this year, France allows the food industry to, among other things, divert excess products directly to food banks from their factories. This will elevate the quality of the products that become available to food banks (I daresay the French have a more profound sense of value for food in general) when food merchandising forecasts miss the mark. The law also forces grocers to reduce food packaging that prevents some food waste from being composted. This law came about, by the way, thanks to the efforts of a city Councillor in a Paris suburb. Arash Derambarsh knew the value of food and he succeeded in channeling that passion into a public campaign that eventually led to a law. First he took Paris, next Brussels.
Back in Canada we don’t have the food waste issue on the national government radar to the same extent as in Europe. That may change. After all, we do have a new Liberal government, and one would suspect they could get behind this issue.
Stay with The Montreal Gleaner and find out.