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Waste and Want: $31B in Food Waste a Grave Concern

October 30, 2016 8:14 AM | Columns

By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, myWestman

Food Bank

Artem Mousessian wraps a shipment for delivery at the distribution centre for Moisson Montreal, the largest food bank in Canada, Thursday, January 28, 2016 in Montreal. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz)

NEEPAWA, Man. — Food waste, it’s a bigger problem than we think. According to a VCM International (VCMI) report, Canadians wasted $31 billion worth of food in 2014, that’s close to $900 per person.

VCMI is a research and consulting company that focuses on agriculture, aquaculture, marine and food industries, but identifying and reducing food waste is one their main areas of expertise.

The report broke down where food waste is occurring. Almost half (47 percent) of waste occurs at the consumer level, followed by processing (20 percent), on the farm and retail (both 10 percent), restaurants and hotels (nine percent), then transportation and distribution (four percent).

Food waste has a huge impact and not just because it means that hungry people aren’t getting food. Agriculture and food retailing are extremely competitive industries and VCMI’s 2014 report notes that throughout the value chain, the total loss due to food waste can be larger than the combined margins for all of the companies involved. For many businesses, reducing waste could reduce operating costs by 15 to 20 percent and increase profitability anywhere from five to 11 percent. The challenge is that most of those companies, including farmers, can’t quantify the number of items that must be sold to cover the cost of those items lost or wasted.

So why does this waste in the value chain persist?

VCMI’s research points to the adversarial relationship that exists within the food industry. The report quoted one industry insider who said, “Consumers are busy picking off deals, while retailers and suppliers are busy picking off each other. This produces enormous amounts of food waste and is unsustainable.”

The problem is that we see pieces of the problem, not the full magnitude. Those at each level see waste occurring in their sector, some of preventable and some due to bad luck- we know that weather events can destroy what was a perfectly good crop, or make it impossible to get that crop off the field. But we also know that a shortage of storage or handling facilities can mean that a good crop never comes off the field or is damaged before it can make it into the food system.

While food waste that occurs within the home is a result of an individual’s behaviour, food waste within the value chain is a result of processes that are inefficient or ineffective.

Earlier this month, VCMI published another report called “Aligning government and industry with value chain solutions”. The numbers are staggering, by some estimates, over one-third of all global food produced for human consumption is wasted. At the same time, we have close to one billion people who are undernourished, juxtaposed with rising levels of obesity in wealthy countries.

The VCMI report noted that no one is responsible for measuring or reducing food waste- there is no government department or agency anywhere in the value chain. What little they do focus on is in the most widely visible areas, retail and food service. The end result is that it falls on industry, who have no incentive to act in a coordinated way or to dramatically overhaul their operating models. Today, much of the focus is on diversion. For example, diverting food that would have gone to landfills to food banks, turning it into animal feed or composting it. While these are better than the alternative and help us feel good about not wasting food, they don’t address the root causes.

Today, much of the industry is rewarded for pushing large volumes of low-cost products. Such a focus makes logical sense to help consumers obtain low-cost food and fewer go hungry, but if food is wasted at each step, then we are no better off as a whole. In fact, the inefficient use of resources, such as land and labour, likely make us worse off.

The challenge is that at each step, food waste is a function of many different and sometimes contradictory factors. The challenge is that we can’t solve food waste by pushing it elsewhere in the value chain. Despite the challenges, it is in all of our best interests to see that we are using this precious and important resource efficiently.

Tags: Food | Manitoba