Bad Apples: Global Food Waste and Its Consequences

(By Polly Zhang, Queen’s University)

Recently, there has been a worldwide movement to reduce the food waste that we produce. Last May, at the G20 Summit in Turkey, agriculture ministers from 20 of the world’s most economically influential countries described food waste as a “global problem of enormous economic, environmental and societal significance”; it is easy to see why.

In 2014, it was estimated that Canada alone wasted $31 billion on food. The same year, food waste in the U.S. totaled a whopping $161 billion. While these numbers are staggering on a purely economic basis, the social inequality that these statistics shed light on has also been a great driving force in the effort to reduce food waste. As consumers, we throw away over a third of the food that is available to us, yet 795 million people in the world suffer from chronic undernourishment. Although the majority of these undernourished individuals live in developing countries, developed countries are not immune to food insecurity; in Canada, one in eight families struggle to put food on the table.

Even if we start becoming more conscious about our food consumption, it may not be enough. While the amount of food the average consumer throws out is shocking, it is only a small part of a much larger story. From farms, to our plates, to landfills, unnecessary food waste permeates every level of the food and agriculture industry.

In 2005, agriculture took up 40% of the Earth’s landmass. As the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that food production will have to increase 70% by 2050, due to the growing population, major changes will have to be made to the way we feed ourselves in order to keep the agriculture sector sustainable.

Right now, it is common practice for farmers to plant more crops than are needed in case of pests, a bad harvest, or increased market demand. This overproduction results in a large excess of food that is not harvested at all. Not only is this a huge waste of food, all of the resources required to grow the crops are wasted. For example, over 70% of the Earth’s freshwater is used for agriculture. If the wasted resources were also taken into account, the real cost of food waste in Canada would be closer to $100 billion every year.

Delicate foods like fruits have an even lower yield because they need to be picked by hand, and a lot of farmers simply cannot afford to hire enough labour. So, even though millions of people are living in hunger, a substantial amount of food is left to decompose right on the field it was grown on. Overproduction and under-harvesting, from farms, leads to the waste of 10% of fresh produce right from the get-go.

From the lucky 90% of crops that farmers are able to harvest, anywhere from 5-30% are then culled (rejected due to the strict aesthetic standards that supermarkets impose). Despite the fact that the majority of fruits and vegetables harvested are edible, we only see the Victoria’s Secret models of the fresh produce world in the grocery stores. In the case of apples, roundness, size, colour, presence of blemishes and weight play a significant role in determining whether or not they are sellable. Surprisingly, taste and overall nutritional value are not factors.

The profit a farmer can make on produce can decrease by two-thirds if it is not labelled as the highest grade of quality. In most cases, “subpar” fruits and vegetables are not even worth selling. Instead, they are sent to the juice market to feed livestock, and, more often than they should be, the landfills.

Food that survive the hurdles at the farms and pass the standards set by grocery stores are still not guaranteed a happy ending. Losses occur before the food reaches the supermarket due to poor storage facilities and transportation infrastructures.

In supermarkets, mislabelling food is a key problem. “Sell by” or “best before” label dates found on almost all foods sold in major retailers have become synonymous with expiry dates. This is very, very often not the case. In fact, most label dates are not regulated by the government and do not offer any indication of food safety. Yet, most consumers and retailers assume that food that exists past these dates has become inedible or unsafe to consume and will throw out anything older than its best before date.

In addition to throwing out perfectly edible produce, some supermarkets, particularly in Europe, routinely pour bleach on their thrown-out food to dissuade the homeless from eating it. The justification for this procedure is that the supermarkets remove any liability that may arise if someone were to get sick from eating thrown out food.

With so many hurdles preventing food from entering our stomachs, it is not hard to see why so much of it is wasted. Despite the implementation (or lack thereof) of composting programs across North America, over a third of consumable foods meet their inevitable demise in the landfills. Of all the food that is being thrown out in the United States, only 3% is composted. The other 97% ends up in landfills. Luckily in Canada, we compost 60% of our organic waste. Buried under tonnes and tonnes of other garbage, the organic waste decomposes without oxygen. A lack of oxygen during the decomposition period causes waste to produce methane gas—a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. In Canada, improperly disposed food accounts for 20% of methane emissions.

While it may seem like a hopeless cause, there is a global initiative to curb our food waste on all fronts. Start-up initiatives are popping up all over North America trying to save culled foods from going to the landfills. Bon Appetit Management Co.’s new initiative, called the Imperfectly Delicious Program (IDP), rescues ugly produce and puts them to good use in the 500 cafes that they operate across the U.S. Recently, France passed a law that prohibits supermarkets from sending uneaten food to the landfills. The law also illegalizes bleaching or destroying produce, and supermarkets are now obligated to donate what they cannot sell to food banks and homeless shelters.

As consumers, we should also be more conscious about the food we buy, and how much we buy. Many new refrigerators sold on the market now come equipped with the technology to monitor the contents of your fridge, in real time, to let you know what food you already have and when it will expire. There are also apps available for Android and iOS that serve the same purpose.

Across the board, a third of food available for human consumption is thrown away. Most of this waste is preventable, and it is about time we did something about it. Globally, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted annually. If this waste was conserved, it would be more than enough to feed the world’s 925 million people living in hunger. That’s some food for thought.



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