Discarded food is just the tip of the iceberg when we talk about food waste. Lurking beneath the surface are all the resources and energy wasted in getting that food from farm to fork. Water, fossil fuels, and packaging are just a few areas of waste that many of us don’t consider in the big picture of food waste.
The Whole Picture
When we think of food waste, most people’s minds go to uneaten household leftovers. Some of us might envision kitchen scraps from a restaurant, or unsold food from a grocery store. But there’s more to food waste than just discarded food. When food gets thrown away, all the energy and resources used to produce, transport, process, package and store the food has been wasted as well. From seed to scrapings, let’s look at the bigger picture of food waste.
Many resources go into producing food, but one that is common across all types of food is water. To produce just 1 kilogram of wheat, for example, requires over 1,800 litres of water, while 1 kilogram of chocolate needs a whopping 17,000 litres! Other produce might also require energy for supplemental light and ventilation if it is grown in large scale commercial greenhouses. When these foods go to waste, all the water and energy that went into their growth, as well as any pesticides used, have also been wasted. Food waste can happen here before the product even makes it to consumers for several reasons, including labour shortages that leave unharvested produce to rot, or low prices that will cost the farmer more to harvest the crop than they will earn from selling it.
Transporting food also requires a lot of resources, mostly in the form of fossil fuels to power the planes and trucks which move food to processing and packaging facilities, and then redistributing it from there to restaurants and grocery stores. On average, the ingredients used to prepare a single household dinner in Canada will travel about 3,000 kilometres from start to finish. This is the equivalent of the distance from Ottawa to Calgary! In the winter, fresh fruits and vegetables might travel even further so that we can still eat out of season produce. Just a single transport truck making this 3,000-kilometre trip will produce 0.66 tons of CO2 emissions. Now consider how many trucks and planes are making this trip every single day, almost every day of the year. All those greenhouse gas emissions have been for nothing if the food they were used to transport just gets thrown out at the other end.
Once food makes it to a grocery store most of it has either been heavily processed/packaged or needs to be kept refrigerated (or all three). If food goes to waste at this point, all the energy and resources it took to process, package, and keep it cold has also been wasted, in addition to those used during the growing and transport stages. Particularly for unsold food being discarded by grocery stores, it is often simply thrown into a dumpster destined to go to the landfill- without separating out compostable food or recyclable packaging, further contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.
The Big Picture
A recent UN report found that worldwide, approximately 1 billion tonnes of food is wasted every year. In Canada, that number is estimated at 35.5 million tonnes, over half of all the food produced in the country each year. In terms of greenhouse gases, Canada produces 56.6 million tonnes of CO2, just from discarded food. The average Canadian household wastes 79 kilograms of food per year, costing them over $1700. This adds up to $49 billion across the country- enough to feed every Canadian for five months. A 2019 report by Second Harvest, an agency working towards reducing food waste, stated that 4.82 million tonnes of food (worth $21 billion) is wasted during processing and manufacturing, while about half that amount is wasted by consumers. Now, consider that these numbers don’t take into account the energy, resources and greenhouse gas emissions from growing, transporting, processing, packaging, and storing this wasted food. The true cost of food waste can only be understood when we look at the whole picture from seed to scrapings.
What Can We Do?
So how can we, as consumers, tackle this problem?
- Learn how to make the most of fresh produce to use every edible part. Things like potato skins, root vegetable greens, broccoli stems and cauliflower leaves are often thrown away but are perfectly edible and delicious!
- Compost your food scraps if you can. Organic matter like food can’t break down into nutrient rich compost in a landfill, instead it produces harmful greenhouses gases like methane.
- Learn some simple food preservation techniques. Most produce can be frozen and used later, or you can dehydrate it using your oven- no fancy equipment needed!
- Shop the discount shelves of the grocery store to buy food close to its best before date to reduce waste from unsold food.
- Learn the difference between “best before” and “expiry” dates. The only foods that have true expiry dates are meal replacement drinks, infant formula, and protein bars. For everything else, if it looks fine, smells fine, and tastes fine after the best before date, it’s more than likely still good to eat.
- Push for policy changes that will help prevent food waste upstream, such as requiring unsold food to be donated or composted instead of being sent to landfill.
Check out this post for more ways to reduce food waste!