Food loss and waste (FLW) occurs throughout the food cycle (or food supply chain). From farm to fork, there are many solutions to curbing FLW. Technology, science, business engagement, best practices, government regulation, and consumer action are just a few examples. These solutions fit within a hierarchy. If we remember the three R’s: Reduce, Recover, and Recycle, we can understand the best order for adopting these solutions.
Reducing is the first and most important stop in the hierarchy of FLW solutions. It calls for an improvement in operations and practices around the production of food.(1) If we can reduce the amount of food being generated by implementing more efficient systems that produce the amount of food required to feed the population without needing to overcompensate for expected losses, a more sustainable food system can be created.
In developed countries like Canada, more food is grown than can be eaten by the country’s consumers. This results in lost or wasted food that uses up precious resources like water, land, and energy for no reason. Globally, 250 km3 of water is used to produce a year’s worth of FLW.(2) That’s approximately 100 million Olympic sized swimming pools. Similarly, 1.4 billion hectares of land are used to produce FLW.(2) This creates an imbalance, where the developed areas of the world take more than their share of the Earth’s resources, while developing regions are often left with very little.
Did You Know?
The amount of energy used to produce FLW in North America could power 274 million homes each year.(3)
To reduce the amount of loss that occurs during production, scientists are engineering crops to be more resistant to pests, disease, and weather. Plant breeding innovations like genetically modified foods insert or edit genes to increase the shelf life of food. This can make produce more nutritious, appealing, and durable, preventing bruising that might cause food to be labelled as unsellable “ugly” produce. Treatments, such as pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, also help reduce food loss by stopping weeds and pests from devastating a harvest.
Did You Know?
Without pesticides there would be 50% fewer apples and 39% fewer potatoes grown in Canada.(4)
New technologies like robots can work to curb food waste by helping farmers perform tasks, such as weeding and fertilizing. These machines can help with precision, adding nutrients with best practice methods, such as the 4R’s of nutrient stewardship: right source, right rate, right time, and right place.(5) Robots can provide farmers with live information on soil conditions, crop ripeness, and weed detection, catching issues earlier so there is less damage to the crop.(6) Canadian companies, such as Advanced Intelligent Systems (AIS) out of Burnaby, British Columbia, are working on affordable robotic solutions to real industry problems.(6)
Likewise, packaging can make a big difference in reducing food loss. Packaging can protect food from damage, delay spoilage, prevent tampering, provide portion control, and offer marketing opportunities that could improve the sale of food.(7) While plastic can be harmful to the environment when improperly disposed, it provides the most “safe, hygienic and protective packaging.”(7) By recycling plastics, we can use what’s already produced and stop the generation of new plastics. This type of circular economy promotes sustainability, keeping materials in use and out of landfills and oceans. Other compostable packaging options are becoming more common. Companies like Refresh Packaging in Calgary, Alberta are working to make these designs effective and available.(8)
Did You Know?
Extending the shelf life of food by a single day can reduce food waste by 200,000 tonnes each year.(9)
When food leaves the production stage, closing the gap between the farm and the consumer can reduce food loss. The more steps and the longer it takes products like fruits and vegetables to reach a shopper, the more opportunity there is for it to become damaged or spoiled and thrown away as a result. Closing the gap aims to make the exchange of food more direct, minimizing the transportation, processing, and manufacturing steps that often fall in-between. This not only prevents food loss, but also reduces the economic and environmental cost of producing that food. By shopping at a farmers’ market or purchasing directly from a farm, consumers can help close this gap.
Once food hits the home, there are a couple methods consumers can take to reduce household food waste. Consumers can store their food properly, so it lasts longer; organize their freezer and fridge, so expiring products are closer to the front; and become more conscious shoppers, planning out shopping trips and understanding food labels. For instance, “best before” dates are often confused with “expiry dates.” Expiry dates are strict deadlines, stating that a product must be consumed before the date or be discarded for safety reasons. Best before dates, however, appear on products with a shelf life of less than ninety days and are more indicators of quality. The date tells shoppers how long an unopened product is guaranteed to be fresh and nutritional, but in reality, these products often last longer than you think, as the dates are not linked to product safety.(10) Another reason for household food waste is poor planning. Without meal plans and shopping lists, shoppers might over-buy because they’re not sure what they have at home or what/how much they might need for a recipe. By becoming a conscious shopper, being mindful of dates, and planning ahead, consumers can make a huge impact in reducing food waste.
Recovering food waste is the second stop in the hierarchy of FLW. Recovery is the process of collecting food that would normally be tossed due to approaching best before dates or cosmetic standards, and instead connecting it with organizations or individuals who can use it.
At the farm, gleaning programs can be introduced to recover food from the field or garden that would normally be overlooked due to “market requirements for shape, size, colour, or conditions.”(11) In Canada, approximately 13 per cent of fruits and vegetables go unharvested or are discarded at this stage.(1) Farmers can collect the leftover produce and either donate it or sell it at local farmers markets, raising awareness with consumers that just because a fruit or vegetable might look different that doesn’t mean it’s not tasty. However, harvesting, packaging, and storing food for donation can be costly. Government incentives can help with this. In British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia, tax credits are offered to support agriculture donation activities.(1)
At a retail level, some businesses choose to offer products nearing their best before date at a reduced cost, advertising the markdown through methods such as “enjoy tonight” stickers. However, if there’s too much food in one location, even discounts won’t sell it in time, because those who need it often don’t have access. Businesses are then left with the dilemma of the extra costs, such as sorting, storing, and transporting, associated with donating their excess food.
This is where recovery organizations can help. These food rescuers step in to assist with the gleaning and recovery processes, collecting and redistributing the food where it’s needed. The Leftovers Foundation and GOAT Generation are just two examples of Calgary-based companies dedicated to taking surplus, but still nutritious, food from retailers like grocery stores, gardens, bakeries, and restaurants and redistributing it to food banks or consumers with limited access to affordable food. Despite these initiatives, however, it is still estimated that “86 per cent of excess edible food is not donated and redistributed.”(12)
Did You Know?
Second Harvest, the largest food rescue organization in Canada redistributed over 50 million pounds of food in 2019.(13)
The recovery of food scraps for the purpose of feeding animals is another way to prevent food waste. This rescues edible food like vegetable leaves and skins that are normally discarded by consumers and restaurants because they’re not preferred eating. Factory food processing lines that trim food to make an end product into a certain size and shape can also help in reducing food waste by donating the scraps to animal feed processing plants or animal feeding operations.
The last chance to prevent FLW before it hits the landfills is by recycling. This stage of the hierarchy is necessary when food is no longer edible, but we want to prevent the harmful environmental effects that come with poor decomposition and resource wastefulness. With the aim of creating a circular economy, spoiled food can be repurposed so that it re-enters the food supply chain. For example, food can be recycled through composting, bio energy, and natural fertilizer methods. Cities can implement green bins that separate organic materials from waste heading to the landfill. Adopting green bins would divert 150 kg of food waste per household every year.(2) Businesses can also donate used fats, oils, or grease to make renewable biodiesel fuel,(14) while natural fertilizers can be created from composted organic materials and used to nourish gardens and farmland.
Did You Know?
In North America, 13 football stadiums worth of landfill space is wasted to FLW every year.(3)
For more information on food loss and waste explore our Nourishing Minds publications here.
1 Government of Canada—Taking Stock: Reducing Food Loss and Waste in Canada, 2019
4 Crop Life—Fact and Figures: Food Waste
5 Nutrient Stewardship—What Are the 4Rs
8 Refresh Packaging—About Us
10 Pressbooks—Best Before and Expiry Dates
11 National Zero Waste Council—A Food Loss and Waste Strategy for Canada, 2018
12 Second Harvest—The Avoidable Crisis of Food Waste: Technical Report, 2019
13 Food Rescue—Our Story
14 The Nutrition Source—Food Waste