Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Why buy the food we only toss out?

Canadians wasting $27B a year: report

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Cleaned out your fridge lately?

If you are like most of us, it contained some unmentionables and a few outdated questionables, which in all likelihood wound up in the trash along with one or two items you're just plain tired of looking at.

While we're at it, how long have those canned beans, vegetables and assorted non-perishable food items you bought at the two-for-one or four-for-$5 sales been sitting in your cupboards?

Many of us lean toward food hoarding. While it isn't a bad strategy to make like a squirrel and store food for times of shortage, we never seem to get around to eating it. All too often, the frenetic pace of modern life leaves those "specials" collecting dust in the pantry while we pick up something on the way home from work or order in takeout.

A report released last week by the London-based Institution of Mechanical Engineers is the latest of a series of reports in recent years sounding the alarm about the shocking levels of waste associated with our global food chains.

This report says the world produces about four billion tonnes of food annually, but 1.2 billion tonnes never get eaten. In fact, up to half of what is produced ends up going to waste.

In our part of the world, it is due to irresponsible retailer and consumer behaviour. In less-industrialized countries, it is due to inadequate harvesting, storage and transportation systems.

For example, retailer standards for size and appearance result in as much as 30 per cent of fruits and vegetables being rejected. Also under the microscope is the use of loss leaders to lure customers into a store. Do they prompt people to buy more than they can use before spoilage occurs?

"This level of wastage is a tragedy that cannot continue," the report states.

Earlier estimates have put the level of food waste between 30 and 50 per cent.

The British study says about $16.3 billion worth of food is thrown away annually in the U.K. A 2011 study by the Value Chain Management Centre at the University of Guelph put the value of Canadian food waste at a whopping $27 billion annually, the equivalent of 40 per cent of food this country produces. That report named consumers as the biggest culprit.

So what if people want to turn their hard-earned cash into mouldy bread, rotten lettuce and mushy peppers? Some would argue rising food costs will curb such behaviours.

But with much of our food production and distribution system based on non-renewable resources, the implications of our wasteful practices are rather dire for people already living with food insecurity and for future generations.

Farmers are proud, and rightly so, of the incredible production efficiency they have achieved in recent generations. According the publication The Real Dirt on Farming, Canadian farmers have gone from producing enough for 10 people a century ago to more than 120 today. Another statistic is that farmers are producing 300 per cent more food today than in 1950, but using less land and fewer resources.

Yet farmers are repeatedly told they must to do even better if they are to feed the world. From all accounts, they are going to extreme lengths to do that.

Perhaps farmers do need to continuously improve, but the rest of us have a lot of catching up to do. Toward that end, 2014 has been officially designated the European Year Against Food Waste.

Do your own experiment or suggest it as a topic the next time the students of the household are scratching their heads over a science-fair project. Measure how much your family throws out in a typical month, then see how much it can be reduced by more strategic management, either through the creative use of leftovers or not buying so much in the first place.

As food writer Calvin Trillin once quipped: "The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for 30 years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found."

The oft-stated challenge of increasing the world's food supply by upward of 70 per cent by 2050 to meet the needs of a growing and increasingly affluent population is less about increasing production than about improving how we manage what is produced today.

It's one thing every one of us can do.


Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email:

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 12, 2013 B8

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