The Impacts of Food Waste

Most of us are probably guilty of food waste at some point. I can admit that I have bought too many vegetables before, and have tossed an over ripe one in the compost bin. I have never really liked wasting food, but have also never really thought about the consequences either. While many of us don’t think how much food we waste, globally it is occurring at alarming rates. Individuals, institutions and the corporate sector are all to blame to this massive waste of food, and all have a part to play in improving our food behaviours.

Experts refer to two broad categories: food loss and food waste. Food loss can be defined as food that is lost before human consumption, which could be due to problems in harvesting, storage, packing, transport, infrastructure or market / price mechanisms, as well as institutional and legal frameworks. Whereas, food waste is defined as food left to spoil or discarded by retailers or consumers (1) .

If you look at food waste from a global perspective it is estimated that worldwide about one third of all food produced gets wasted in the food production and consumption systems , which is equal to about 1.3 billion tonnes(2). In Canada, 27 billion dollars worth of food ends up in the landfill or compost (3). Furthermore, over 30% of fruits and vegetables in North America don’t even make it onto store shelves , as they are not aesthetically pleasing, and would not be purchased by fussy  customers(4). These are significant numbers that should not be ignored.

When you think about food waste at first you may only think of the product itself that you are wasting. However, if you look at all the effort it took to get that piece of food to your table, then you add another dimension to what is wasted. Take a banana for example, water  is needed to grow a banana, work needs to be put in to get it to grow, and packaging is needed for transport/sales, and there is also the transport itself. The more complex the food item, the more is needed in its production; thus more is wasted when the item is tossed. When you add these extra components, you can see that not just the banana was wasted, but all the effort needed to get it to your table.

There is also an environmental component to food waste. Close to 20 % of Canada’s methane emissions (a greenhouse gas that traps more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide) come from landfills (5). Methane from food waste rotting in landfills is  also 25 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (6). Moreover, the burning of fossil fuels is needed to produce many food items, so we are burning fossil fuels unnecessarily when the product is just wasted in the end.

Food waste is often blamed on the consumer, and we do have our part to play, as close to 51% of food wasted comes from people’s homes(7). However , institutions and organizations also have roles to play, as 37% of food is wasted in food service industries, retail, and due to processing and packaging. In hospital settings I have witnessed large quantities of perfectly edible food being tossed out after meal times.

In order to prevent food waste we must all do our part, as there usually is a better, more efficient way of doing things. In the home you may want to consider ways of cutiing back your own waste, with some tips here (8) (9).However, changing food waste on an organizational or institutional level seems much more difficult. How do we find a way to change food waste on such a level?

Aubrey Bergen

Dalhousie School of Nursing

Our Food Project Intern

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