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Talk about a waste of food

By now, most of us have heard the figures around food waste. Canada generates more waste per capita than any other country in the world. Every year, close to 60% of food produced in Canada is wasted. That’s more than 35 metric tons of food. Of course, approximately 10% of it is unavoidable waste with inedible products such as bones, parts of produce or unwanted scraps as examples. But avoidable waste represents a massive amount. The average Canadian consumer throws out an estimated 170 kilograms 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% of what’s in the cart will go to waste. That’s real food and real money.

Considering the energy and resources required to produce all this food, the link between food waste and climate challenge is becoming more obvious, and politicized. Food waste is no longer a trivial subject, it’s about the health of our planet. According to a recent survey conducted by Angus Reid, 53% of Canadians intend to reduce food waste as much as possible in 2020. It was the number one New Year’s resolution Canadians had in mind regarding food. It was more popular than cooking, losing weight, or even eating more fruits and vegetables. Our collective focus on food waste is palpable.

For decades, food waste was a largely ignored issue because our food economy never really considered the negative impact that came with our focus on abundance. During this time, the food waste issue was covered by organizations working on the margins of our food industry. Second Harvest and other non-profit organizations 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.

More recently, food companies have realized that tackling food waste can be beneficial and profitable. We have seen large grocers selling aesthetically-imperfect produce at a discount, but given how volatile pricing can be in that section of the store, consumers were left baffled as to whether discounting was really occurring. While the idea had merit, the initiative has failed to demonstrate any evidence it reduces food waste along the food supply chain.

Trays with leftover food products have become more visible in store, and purchased more frequently by price-conscious consumers. While the effort is genuine, the fear of losing sales never really disappeared. Grocers are hardwired to make money by selling high-quality, fresh products. From a business sense, retailing rescued food is almost counterintuitive for grocers, which is why their strategic reluctancy is so painfully understandable.

We have now reached a point where consumers are looking for ways to reduce food waste and save money. But they are also expecting substantial results, and grocers know it. While Loblaw opted for an app called FlashFood, both IGA and Metro in Quebec have recently launched a partnership with an app called Food Hero. Using the apps, shoppers can purchase food getting close to its best-before date at prices marked down by 25% to 60%. Great concept, but the business case is still in progress.

Another phenomenon is how food waste can serve a completely different economic purpose. Toronto’s newest biogas facility is a perfect example. Organic waste, or compost, will be diverted to an anaerobic digester in Toronto 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.

As food rescuing receives greater focus, we can expect the food industry to look for ways to address this issue. In the end though, given our modern lifestyles and the fact that we eat out more often than at home, we just may be buying too much food at the grocery store, period. This is certainly not something the industry wants to hear, but our way of life has changed dramatically over the years. We show up at the grocery store without a plan or an idea of what and how to cook, and we don’t think about how to repurpose leftovers. This is a scenario that was likely repeated several times over the holidays. Food for thought!

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