Don’t Dismiss a $31-billion Food Waste Problem

Labels, labels everywhere

Owen RobertsAnimosity and mistrust in the food system — or the “agri-food value chain,” as it’s called in some circles — is costing farmers billions of dollars in waste.

At a time when the powers-that-be are urging the sector to bolster the economy by pulling together for increased jobs and exports, Oakville-based Value Chain Management International (VCMI) is saying there’s a huge rift in the sector, impeding progress.

This arose in the organization’s most recent food waste review. No sooner had the University of Guelph reported that food prices were likely to rise “marginally,” between 0.3 per cent and 2.4 per cent, VCMI released its review announcing Canada was wasting about $31 billion worth of food every year.

Food prices are unlikely to drop much with this kind of waste in the system. The 2014 figure was up from $27 billion in VCMI’s first report not that long ago, based on 2010 data. Since then, the organization added waste from the seafood sector and the travel industry, particularly airline caterers and cruise ships (think buffets) to arrive at $31 billion.

It all leads to a six-million-kilogram scrap heap of food equivalent to about 40 per cent of all our food.

The report’s co-author, VCMI CEO Martin Gooch, is not laying at great deal of the overall figure at farmers’ feet. Most food waste occurs as a result of our consuming culture, and what he calls a “myopic” view of value versus volume.

Generally, we buy too much. Retailers offer tempting loss leaders to get us in the door, and we overstock. If these items are perishable, they may run their course before they get consumed. And if they don’t get purchased, the store ends up throwing them out.

VCMI estimates that through all the wasted labour, energy, water and transportation that goes into producing food that turns into garbage even before the point of sale, food waste costs consumers about 10 per cent more for food. That’s a frustrating figure for everyone living on a budget, even though Canadians pay comparatively little for food.

The whole situation is made worse when food value chain members, including farmers, are fighting among themselves. Gooch believes that for most businesses, opportunities abound for reducing food waste costs. These opportunities can often be achieved more quickly, and are more sustainable, than seeking to increase revenue by selling more, more, more.

He connects farms to about 10 per cent of the total food waste. Some of that is through production losses from harvest and storage.

But a significant portion is because of what he calls “the inefficiencies that stem from the distrusting relationship that typify the food industry.”

In other words, some people think the next guy down the line is shafting them.

So, they’re reluctant to form any kind of business alliance that would lead to better use of their crops or livestock — and as a result, less waste.

Gooch is challenging farmers and others to consider a new perspective. Think and act from a value chain perspective, he urges. Determine where you fit into the big picture, as food providers. And when you accurately identify where opportunities occur — and realize you could profit from treating the person next to you in the value chain as an ally rather than an adversary – it’s quite likely there’s some economic advantage to be gained.

It’s an uphill battle for management specialists such as Gooch. Seemingly, not much happened in society or the farm and food sector after the $27-billion problem was revealed in 2010. And inevitably, a problem of this magnitude doesn’t fix itself.

But without people like him prodding the sector, trying to find opportunities for greater efficiency and profitability, change might never start.

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Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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One Comment

Richard Barrett

Thanks for the article. The majority (not me) would like the Government to regulate and protect all our food. One specific example is the meat. They were advertising done at a certain temperature (72c) which kills the bad pathogens but CFIA does not believe it enough to encourage Burns Meats to give the meat away at the consumer risk but desired that it all be sent to the Dump. $$ Less Liability and more profit to sell more and a big Tax Write Off. Have I got this right?

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