Tackling food waste: A recipe for change

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Approximately 1.3 billion tons of food a year is wasted, which is about a third of the edible food produced globally. Around $940 billion per year, in economic waste, in US dollars, is the cost of food loss and waste every year.

If food waste was a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.

So I’m Professor Heather McLeod-KilMurray. I’m the co-director of the Center for Environmental and Global Sustainability at the University of Ottawa faculty of Law.

I started examining issues of sustainable food systems with my colleague, professor Natalie Charlifour because food law wasn’t a thing at that time in Canada. There’s a lot of research about food in other faculties and departments, but not in law specifically.

Food loss and waste is something that’s gaining a lot of traction and gaining a lot of interest both domestically and internationally. But one thing is that there’s not a clear definition. So food loss is generally considered any food that doesn’t make it to market or to the consumer. So at the production and transport and processing stage. And then food waste is at the consumer and post-consumer end of things.

So that’s how some organizations define it. However, there is some argument that it’s just all waste, and we should look at it all as one sort of holistic problem.

The number of people living with food insecurity, both in Canada and around the world, has grown, particularly over the pandemic years. Some argue that the solution to food insecurity and hunger is to continuously increase food production, and often the suggestions focus around technological fixes and increasing the industrialization of food production.

And before we go to those measures, which can have significant environmental impacts, the idea is to start by trying to reduce the food waste before we increase production.

We have generally in this industrialized food system that we have around the world, a real commitment to overproduction, systemic overproduction. Producing food that then gets thrown in the garbage, consumes a significant number of environmental resources, so huge amounts of water, deforestation to create, arable land to produce, grains and other types of meat, et cetera. And so all of those resources are wasted along with that carrot or that piece of chicken that you throw in the garbage as well as, farm and other food system labor is wasted.

We don’t have any overarching law in Canada at the federal level talking about food waste, setting targets, setting obligations to measure, et cetera. There just is no law, there’s no policy.

We do have a lot more action increasingly from the federal government in terms of, providing resources for research and development for technologies to deal with food loss and waste. We have, encouraging programs to try to raise awareness among consumers and things like that, but we don’t have a lot of actual law and policy.

We’ve worked with an NGO called Reimagine Agriculture, as well as with my colleague, professor Patricia Galvão Ferreira from Dalhousie University. And over the past two years, we’ve been working with students, getting them to just try to take a lay of the land, what is going on with food loss and waste in Canada, what’s going on internationally, what are some best practices, trying to get a little bit of a database going and hoping to produce some, policy briefs and even draft legislation to help move this along. I’ve also been just recently working with some of the food services and the sustainability office on campus at the University of Ottawa, and they’re doing a lot right now on campus, to tackle this from packaging to food waste itself.

Lots of new innovations that are happening, which is really exciting. And if we can get those large institutional food, procurement providers to change, some of their systems to reduce food loss and waste, that would have an enormous impact because they supply universities, you know, prisons, hospitals, various things that would be very significant. So that’s another part of the project.

One of the big concerns that we face concerning food waste is a lack of awareness. and so just increasing awareness I think is one of the biggest things that we can do across the food system.

The other thing is that there are some amazing things being done at the provincial level, and particularly at the municipal level. There’s a variety of cities who are doing wonderful things, but there’s a lack of coordination.

And so what role might the federal or provincial governments have in coordinating some of these, exercises in some of these best practices across Canada and even across different countries internationally?

My hope is that we’re going to increasingly understand food as a food system and move toward a more circular food system, a more sustainable food system, so that we can tackle the multiple harms of our current approach, the environmental harms, the food security harms, the climate harms, and turn them into positives so that we can have less food waste, less food insecurity, and less impact on climate change as a result of something that we all have to do three times a day.

Approximately 1.3 billion tons of food go to waste each year. The economic losses, and the impact of food waste on the environment are problems that we can no longer afford to ignore.

Professor Heather McLeod-Kilmurray, co-director of the Centre for Environmental Law and Global Sustainability at the University of Ottawa, has been at the forefront of addressing sustainable food systems since 2016, back when food law was not yet an established field in Canadian legal studies. She works now to address significant gaps in law and policy relating to the food we consume and the food we don’t, striving to make lawmakers and regular Canadians aware of the importance of sustainable and waste-conscious food systems 

Food loss and waste are gaining increasing attention domestically and internationally, but as a sign of how far we still have to go, a clear and universally accepted definition of “food waste” is still lacking. Generally, “food loss” refers to food that is lost or that spoils during production or en route to the grocery store, while “food waste” refers to the food that remains unpurchased at the grocery store or that spoils – or at least that is not eaten – after you buy it. All told, the amount of food that never gets eaten really adds up.

At the federal level, Canada lacks comprehensive legislation addressing food waste. This means we don’t have consistent ways to measure how much food is wasted (or how it is wasted), nor do we have meaningful targets to aim for – targets that might impose certain obligations on food producers and food sellers, or that might give the general population pause before they throw out a slightly brown banana.

The problem, of course, is more serious than a few items thrown out at home or left behind at a grocery store. Food insecurity in Canada rose significantly during the pandemic. But ramping up food production to address food insecurity fails to get at the root of the problem. Current data suggests that the world produces enough food to fully feed its population. Increased production may solve part of the problem, but it also contributes to more food loss and waste. The effect on the environment of increased production and increased waste is severe. Food waste alone produces an exceptionally high amount of greenhouse gases.

Professor McLeod-Kilmurray and her colleagues, including the University of Ottawa’ Professor Nathalie Chalifour, Professor Angela Lee of Toronto Metropolitan University and Patricia Galvão-Ferreira of the University of Windsor are trying to change things. For example, alongside NGO Reimagine Agriculture, Professor McLeod-Kilmurray and Professor Galvão-Ferreira have been working with students to survey the landscape of food loss and waste in Canada, examining international practices and developing a database to help track data that can allow us to see the full scope of the problem. They hope to generate policy briefs and even draft legislation to address the issue. 

Professor McLeod-Kilmurray is also taking inspiration from provinces and municipalities that are mobilizing against food waste in a variety of creative ways. Progress is possible, but there is a growing need for federal and provincial governments to coordinate these efforts and to share best practices. Professor McLeod-Kilmurray is currently examining food loss and waste in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Brazil, aiming to provide insights into global food waste reduction strategies. She also works directly with the University of Ottawa, studying how local efforts to address food waste on campus might be expanded to influence larger institutional food providers.

Food waste is a problem partly due to a lack of awareness. Most of us simply don’t know or care to acknowledge the implications of throwing out a slightly bruised peach, or scouring the dairy section for the tub of yoghurt with the latest expiry date. Professor McLeod-Kilmurray hopes to expose the impacts of these simple choices. The resulting transformation could result in reduced food waste, greater food security, and a significant impact on climate change – a goal we can all share, three meals a day.

Thank you to Safi Fine Foods for providing us with a wonderful venue in which to film this video. 

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