An international environmental group suggests that reducing Canada’s colossal food waste would be a smart business move and good for the environment.
“You can make a really strong business case for action,” said David Donaldson of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, an environmental watchdog agency set up under the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Canada is one of the biggest wasters of food on the planet, says the commission’s report, released late last week. The agency found that from farm to table, 396 kilograms of food annually are wasted or lost per capita.
That’s compared with 415 kilograms in the United States and 249 kilograms in Mexico.
Food is considered lost when it is spilled or spoiled before it reaches its final destination.
Not only does that waste have an economic cost — other studies have pegged it at about $30 billion a year — it creates 21 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, largely from landfills.
By far the largest part of the waste comes from consumers, says the report. Every Canadian, on average, tosses away 170 kilograms of food a year.
The commission’s recommendations focus on the middle part of the food chain where Canada’s groceries are collected, processed, distributed and prepared. That’s where the economic case is clearest, Donaldson said.
“You can make a business case for it. Companies can improve the way they do business.”
Restaurants could reduce portions, the report suggests. Bread served at tables could be optional. Buffet serving trays could be shallower to reduce the amount of food on display.
Retailers could sell cosmetically imperfect produce at a discount, as some already do. Expiry date labels could be standardized.
Better tools and techniques to prevent food waste and to make processing and transport more efficient would be a big help, said researcher Tamara Shulman.
“We interviewed people from across Canada and everyone’s thirsty to get access to information,” she said.
James Rillet of Restaurants Canada said his industry is well aware of the economic benefits of cutting waste.
“It’s money out of their pockets.”
Rillet’s group already runs programs to help restaurateurs plan better to avoid waste. It’s also working with the Ontario government to avoid food waste due to outdated health guidelines.
But he called some of the report’s recommendations simplistic.
“Some restaurants are known for their portion sizes,” he said. “There’s so many different concepts.
“Consumers want what they want.”
The National Zero Waste Council, which is devoted to cutting waste from the Canadian economy, praised the commission’s report and said it echoed many recommendations it has already made.
“Best-before dates are low-hanging fruit,” said Denise Philippe. “The dates on our food packaging are all over the map.”
Too much food gets tossed because consumers and businesses assume a best-before date is a deadline and not a quality benchmark, she said.
“It’s not clear to the consumer and sometimes not to businesses that when we say ‘best before’ we’re not talking about a food safety issue.”
Donaldson said more people are becoming aware of the problem.
The commission’s report was produced at the request of the three NAFTA governments. As well, all three have signed a United Nations pledge to halve food waste and loss by 2030.
A federal strategy is expected this spring.
“The issue of food waste, for the last decade, has really come to the forefront,” Donaldson said.