Food waste on B.C. farms? Blame the system not the farmer, new SFU research suggests

·4 min read
A new study from Simon Fraser University examines the factors that lead to food waste on farms.  (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
A new study from Simon Fraser University examines the factors that lead to food waste on farms. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

New research from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., says food waste on farms can be prevented with better policies to help farmers face everyday challenges.

Tammara Soma, the research director of the Food Systems Lab at SFU and a co-author of the study, says current solutions to prevent edible produce from going to waste place too much onus on already overburdened farmers.

"Farmers have a lot of knowledge. They also have the motivation to want to get the food to the consumers," Soma said.

"But they actually need some support. They need the tools, the infrastructure, the investment so that they can actually get the food to the people while also still maintaining their everyday survival and livelihood as a farmer."

$50B in annual food loss

According to the research paper, which was published in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling, about 14 per cent of the world's food is lost before it ever reaches store shelves.

In Canada, about 35.5 million tonnes of food is wasted across the supply chain each year, representing a cost of nearly $50 billion.

To investigate what leads to that waste on B.C. farms, Soma and her colleagues interviewed 40 farmers and stakeholders in the local food and agricultural industry.

B.C. farmers say their work is hard enough without having to find new avenues for imperfect produce.
B.C. farmers say their work is hard enough without having to find new avenues for imperfect produce. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Some of the main problems, Soma says, include the lack of appetite for "ugly" fruit and vegetables, a global food system that creates unstable, rock-bottom prices for produce, and a lack of incentives to giving away free food that would otherwise go to waste.

"Farmers ask for more stability. Farmers ask for more livable wages so they can actually make ends meet and plan better and not have to overplant to kind of hedge against the risk — the weather risk, the price risk and all of these things," she said.

'Nothing's ever going well'

Rather than often-called-for solutions like better farming technology, Soma says, the paper identifies investments in processing infrastructure and the creation of alternative markets like a "farm-to-school" program as some possible solutions.

Soma says the farmers she spoke with told her that a decline in the number of processors in B.C. means there are fewer avenues for less desirable produce to be turned into different products.

Krystine McInnes, the owner of Grown Here Farms in Cawston, B.C., was one of the farmers who contributed to the study.

The difficulties of securing farm labour noted in the SFU study is one of the challenges that can lead to food waste.
The difficulties of securing farm labour noted in the SFU study is one of the challenges that can lead to food waste. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Her farm produces mostly organic vegetables, with 90 per cent of them making their way to Metro Vancouver.

McInnes says work on the farm is hard enough with little time or money to spend on finding alternative markets for produce that doesn't sell.

"Take the most difficult thing you could possibly conceive of doing and then 10x it. And that's farming. That's when everything is going well," she said.

"But, you know, nothing's ever going well. There's always a problem somewhere."

Grown Here farm in Cawston, B.C., has been in operation since about 2005. Krystine McInnes took over in 2015.
Grown Here farm in Cawston, B.C., has been in operation since about 2005. Krystine McInnes took over in 2015. (Grown Here farm)

When McInnes first took over the farm in 2015, she had high hopes for finding a market for unsold produce. But then reality set in and the logistical challenges of trying to find a home for even the perfect vegetables that didn't sell became apparent.

McInnis says donating the produce can be difficult because agencies ready to take the food don't have the infrastructure in place to pick it up and accept it, which means her staff has to find time to load up the produce and deliver it themselves — a tricky prospect when days on the farm are already long.

'I just can't deal with one more thing'

Like many farmers Soma interviewed, McInnis says she has never applied for a tax receipt for the produce she does donate, because the process is onerous and isn't that helpful financially.

As for finding a home for imperfect vegetables, McInnis says it takes time and effort she doesn't have, only to have them sell for half the price.

"You're already so mentally and emotionally exhausted," she said. "You look at the numbers and you're like, we'll just put it on the compost pile because I just can't deal with one more thing right now that's not going to generate revenue or positive cash flow for the farm."

McInnis says the problem of food waste is complex, but she agrees with Soma's findings and suggestions for better support and systems for B.C. farmers.

Current food production systems in B.C. and Canada aren't sustainable, she says, and she worries that the current system will break without more support.