According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, approximately one third of all food produced for human consumption goes to waste. As much as we fetishize food in North America, we also waste an incredible amount. One of the big paradoxes of our time is that, despite alarming global hunger statistics, the FAO found we throw out an estimated 1.3 billion tonnes of food annually — four times the amount required to feed the world’s 795 million hungriest people.
In Canada, a 2014 report by Value Chain Management International Inc pegged the annual value of food waste across the country at $31 billion. And it’s not just food that’s wasted, it’s also the labour, energy, machinery and natural resources required to produce, store and transport it.
Then there’s the impact on the environment. “When you look at food waste globally, if it was a country, it would be third in terms of greenhouse gas emissions behind China and the United States. So, it’s a huge climate change issue. There are emissions all the way along the path, from production — particularly for things like beef that are very greenhouse gas intensive — all the way through to disposal,” says JoAnne Berkenkamp, Senior Advocate with the Food and Agriculture Program of the US Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
In North America, the largest piece of the food waste pie, by value, occurs in households, followed by grocery stores, restaurants and institutional food service like hospitals, colleges and universities.
Much of our household waste is due to spoiled produce, languishing unused in refrigerators. We buy in mass quantities at warehouse-style supermarkets that offer super-size shopping carts and too-good-to-be-true deals, which means we often overbuy. Since we’ve grown accustomed to abundance, we also tend to take it for granted. Nowadays, we waste about 50 percent more food than in the 1970s.
“What we found in our research is people are often extremely conscious of the cost of food when they purchase it, but they’re oblivious to the cost when they throw it out. The average family of four spends $1,500 a year on food that they throw out,” says Berkenkamp.
A number of factors contribute to that. “People often purchase more than they can eat. And that’s driven by things like 55 percent of grocery purchases in the US are impulse buys, which is to say a person didn’t have an intention about what they were going to buy when they got there. They’re shopping without a list. It’s also driven by two-for-one deals, and very large pack sizes of things. Boxes of lettuce that are three times what a family can use but it looks really cheap, so people are motivated by the prospect of getting a good deal to purchase more than they can utilize,” says Berkenkamp.
Busy lifestyles are another factor. “We tend to be aspirational shoppers in the grocery store: we want to have more variety in our diet, we want to try new recipes, we want to get the healthy options, we don’t want to run out, we want to get something all the members of our household will like. We’re maybe trying to accommodate kids that have really different schedules so we’re planning for multiple meals, maybe even in a given evening to accommodate family member’s schedules. All of those things tend to spur us to purchase and prepare more food than we can eat.”
Confusion over date labels and how to store food also has an effect. “In the research we did for the Ad Council’s ‘Save The Food’ campaign, we had researchers go into people’s homes and to the grocery store with them, and look in their refrigerator and their trash, and keep food waste diaries. We’d see things on the shelf that belong in the fridge and vice versa. Refrigerators at too high of a temperature, or milk being pulled out and left on the dinner table for an hour or two per day, which raises the temperature and causes it to not last as long. Things like fruits need to be at a low humidity so they belong in the low-humidity crisper drawer, whereas vegetables need higher humidity and they belong in the other drawer. Things like that are not widely understood.”
Nor, says Berkenkamp, is the fact that produce should not be stored in the bags that it’s typically purchased in. “Most fruits and vegetables need to breathe, so if you store [something] tied up in a plastic bag, you’re going to get condensation in there, and more moisture, and it will not last as long as it otherwise might.”
Other waste occurs in restaurants and at retail food businesses: the leftovers on our plates due to oversize portions we can’t finish, or produce discarded because it doesn’t look cosmetically perfect — even though it might be perfectly fine to eat.