Wasted food is a tremendous global problem. Depending on how you define waste, anywhere from 30 per cent to – in developed countries – upwards of half the food grown for human consumption ends up being thrown away.
Almost everyone involved, from farmers to consumers, bear a share of the blame but France is taking a radical step to address it by targeting its supermarkets. A new law will make it illegal for large grocers to dispose of food that’s still edible into the garbage stream.
The law, approved last week by the National Assembly, requires store operators to donate unsold still-edible food, whether packaged or fresh, to charities. To ensure compliance, they’ll be required to make contracts with recipient organizations.
Food no longer fit for human consumption must be processed into animal feed or compost.
It took a grassroots campaign by one French politician to bring about the legislation because, as in Canada, this serious issue flies pretty much under the public’s radar.
There’s no doubt, though, that people who concern themselves with sustainability will be watching whether the French initiative works to cut waste.
Opinions are divided on whether such a law makes much sense in Canada.
There’s no doubt we’re world-class wasters of food, along with our American neighbours.
“North America is probably the worst of any place,” Herb Barbolet of Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Sustainable Community Development, told Yahoo Canada.
“The estimates are anywhere from 40 to 60 per cent but it’s very hard to really tie that down because it goes all the way from waste on the primary producer to waste on the consumer in the kitchen and everything in between.”
Canadian food waste estimated at $31 billion a year
A 2010 report by Value Chain Management International so far seems to be the only effort to quantify food waste in Canada. An updated version released last year estimated the annual cost at $31 billion, up from $27 billion four years earlier thanks largely to better information.
But that figure is based on quantifiable data, the report warns, and the true value could be as high as $100 billion if a UN Food and Agricultural formula is used that includes all the various costs that go into food production and distribution, such as energy, land, labour and machinery.
Consumers – we individual Canadians – account for 47 per cent of the waste. Some estimates value the food we toss out at about $1,000 a year.
It equates to filling four grocery bags at the supermarket each week and leaving one in the parking lot, said Lindsay Coulter, the David Suzuki Foundation’s Queen of Green.
Consumer waste is followed by the food-processing sector at 20 per cent, then farmers and retailers at 10 per cent each.
Value Chain Management International Inc. CEO Martin Gooch questioned the effectiveness of the French legislation.
“Picking on one level of the chain in isolation of the others is not the best approach, particularly given the majority of food waste does not occur at retail,” he said in an interview.
It would also likely be impractical in a country as big and relatively sparsely populated as Canada, Gooch added.
“One of the challenges in Canada is the distribution of stores,” he said. “This is a large country compared to France. The locality and geography doesn’t work the same in many parts of Canada versus France.”
Many supermarket operators already have programs to donate unsold bread and other goods, such as outdated but still safe packaged foods. But the logistics of doing that on a large scale are daunting, said Gooch.
“The key challenge is costs and labour,” he said. “There’s types of foods that are costly to rescue and someone ultimately has to pay for that, and ultimately that’s going to be us, the consumer.”
Waste-reduction program could affect food prices
Wastage is probably already built into the price of most food but any legally mandated program is bound to drive up costs further, Gooch said.
“But if you take a big-stick approach, which is what France is doing, then there’s certainly the potential for a further increase in the cost of food with potentially limited added benefit,” he said.
Not everyone is so skeptical.
“I think it’s an interesting proposal,” said Jen Rustemeyer, who co-produced a documentary film on the issue.
“I think any kind of policy that shows a government is thinking about food waste is amazing because most countries don’t have anything like that,” she said.
For it to work, though, there would have to be enforcement and that could be difficult.
For example, in Metro Vancouver, it’s illegal to dispose of organic waste in garbage destined for the landfill. It must be put in a separate container or added to the bin used for yard waste so it can go to the city’s composting contractor.
The bylaw, which covers more than two million people in Vancouver and its suburbs, took effect Jan. 1. In July fines will be levied if organics are discovered in a load taken to any garbage transfer facility. However, it will be up to the hauler to make sure no one’s cheating because it would be hard to trace back a batch of softening fruit or stale bread to an individual or store.
Any law would have to be federal or perhaps provincial because municipalities don’t have the power to compel stores to donate food, said Craig Shishido, who worked with businesses on waste issues for Metro Vancouver’s solid waste services department.
The department’s acting director said there might be a role for legislation.
Andrew Marr said the National Zero Waste Council food working group is reviving a proposal first floated by Food Banks Canada to give federal tax credits to companies that donate food to charities.
A law like the one in France “does seem like a logical complement to the kind of tax credit that we’re looking at,” said Marr.
“In a perfect world you have both a tax credit and an incentive and federal legislation as a regulatory push.”
Any legislation could be tweaked to allow for Canada’s logistical challenges, such as exceptions when there’s no refrigerated transport for perishable food or if it has to go further than a certain distance, or lack of storage at the recipient charity, he said.
“That doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be done here if there was political will,” said Marr, who hopes the policy proposal will reach the federal Finance Department before the October election.
Some food retailers run their own food donation programs
A number of supermarkets have their own initiatives, such as Loblaw’s program to sell so-called “ugly produce” at a discount because it’s bruised or misshapen but still fine to eat or use in cooking.
“From shipping and storage to packaging and recycling, we’re instituting lots of change to make certain we are not wasting food in our stores,” Kevin Groh, Loblaw Corp.‘s vice-president of corporate affairs and communication said via email.
“Where we have edible food that will go unsold, we have local and national commitments that ensure good food is eaten and not thrown away. There are social and business imperatives at play, and we share in the concern around good food going to waste.“
But Marr noted food sellers often are reluctant to donate product because they worry they’ll be held liable if something turns out to be tainted and makes someone sick.
Most provinces have so-called Good Samaritan laws that protect them, such as B.C.’s Food Donor Encouragement Act.
“The problem is many of the businesses that could potentially donate food aren’t aware that this legislation exists, even though it’s been around since the nineties,” said Marr.
The B.C. Centre for Disease Control is developing new guidelines for food donation to try and encourage the practice, Marr added.
But others want the problem attacked on a broader front, such as encouraging producers not to cull fruits and vegetables that aren’t less than perfect-looking. A shocking amount of good food is dumped before it hits the farm gate, said Rustemeyer.
“I was wading through celery that was being left on the farm,” she said, recalling an experience while making her film.
Everyone involved in the issue agrees change needs to be driven by consumers, who cause the lion’s share of waste but are only vaguely conscious of the problem.
They should avoid over-shopping, learn to properly store perishables so they don’t go bad and not turn up their noses when it comes to food that doesn’t look picture perfect.
“We need to change our attitudes as a society what’s edible,” said Marr. “Just because it’s shaped funny doesn’t mean it’s no longer edible.”
That kind of shift would force other elements in the food-supply to change as well, said Rustemeyer.
“If consumers were demanding that they could buy imperfect so that grocery stores didn’t have waste or restaurants were giving smaller portion sizes, then the market is going to change,” she said.