Photo: flickr/starr

Suppose they called an election, and not one candidate wasted their breath talking about the 67 billion kilograms of North America food that ends up in landfill, at a yearly cost to Canadian and U.S. taxpayers of $192 billion — before even getting to impacts that rank food waste as the third-largest source of destructive global warming gases, just behind all the emissions from the U.S. and China.

That just happened in Ontario-wide municipal and in U.S. mid-term elections.

Odd that so much money can be wasted on garbage and so much environmental damage done by garbage, without anyone ranking it high as a hot public policy issue  — one that, without costing taxpayers an extra dime, could be turned into a $192-billion public policy opportunity to create jobs managing wasted resources, while at the same time preventing incalculable damage from global warming emissions. 

But job creation and environmental opportunity do not jump out at many of the people who feel terrible about 40 per cent of the food produced in North America being garbaged, in a world where a billion people suffer from acute hunger.

According to surveys by geographer Kate Parizeau at Guelph University in southern Ontario, 85 per cent of townspeople feel  deep personal guilt about all the food they waste. But most (74 per cent) also feel that food waste is a problem that should be blamed on and solved by individuals, Parizeau told a November 4 province-wide conference call organized by the umbrella food group, Sustain Ontario.

Food waste joins the long list of other personal sins that have no name, in either municipal or food policy.

Since local governments are left holding both the bag and the bill for handling food and other garbage, their staff look at the issue through a waste removal lens. The Reduce that’s listed first in the famous anti-garbage slogan “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” most pointedly refers to reducing bills that cities have to pay for garbage.

The exception is Dave Gordon, manager of sustainable waste in the York Region north of Toronto, another speaker on the Sustain conference call.

Because guilt leads people to avoid thinking about a topic, he says, the first rule of the campaign York Region plans to roll out is “Don’t talk about food waste.” The campaign is called “Cook up some fun,” and focuses on the health and pleasure of planning and cooking meals together.

Waste avoidance and packaging reduction are two side-benefits that just go along for the ride when healthy meals are being cooked from scratch.

But there are severe limits to what such campaigns can accomplish, if only because they miss about half of the waste that permeates the food system.  

Because they work where the garbage hits the road, city staff in charge of garbage inevitably define waste as something that ends up in a garbage can or green bin, usually carted there by someone in a family household.

That view of the garbage world misses out on waste that’s beyond the pail of garbage, and that is part and parcel of the logistics of the dominant food system — the very issues that need to be highlighted to free up the $192 billion now being wasted to produce landfill.  

Half a century ago, much of what is now classified as food waste — off-sized produce, and milk and veggies beyond their best-before date in terms of taste and appearance, for example — was fed to pigs and chickens, who thrived on them and converted them to protein.

There was no waste in such a system, where all phases of a food system were close to one another. It’s the long-distance organization of the food system that keeps us from dealing with waste naturally — as a resource that can be repurposed.

Such simple corrections are also nixed in today’s food system because chickens and pigs are mostly raised in crowded  and tightly-regulated factory-style barns. To ensure the precise amount of meat is added on in the shortest time possible, today’s livestock are fed  a uniform diet of corn and soy.

Half the world’s grains are used to feed livestock — thereby keeping quality food out of the hands of hungry people and reducing the nutrient quality of meat, while requiring high energy inputs that aren’t needed when pigs and chicken eat lower on the food chain.

It is a factory-based and long distance food system that creates waste, not individual householders, however guilty they may feel.

The same goes for the mainstay of food waste — which is feeding of energy-intensive corn and soy to cows and steers in order to boost production of milk and meat faster than happens when cows and steers eat grass, the food they evolved on.   

The faster turnover increases profit margins, but at the cost of losing nutrients from meat and milk raised on grass, a wasted nutritional opportunity of a crop that grows naturally, without wasting pesticides..

Since the purpose of the food system is to sell product, not provide services, the entire food retail system is built around ads and product placement designed to maximize impulse sales and sales of “super-sized” versions that are priced to appear as a deal too good to be passed up — especially since the cost for wasting will be picked up by the household taxpayer, not the retailer.

Foods that have been stripped of nutrients — most notably baked goods made with white flour, sugar, salt and manufactured vegetable oils — are another large instance of unrecorded waste, most of which unfortunately ends up in pot bellies of pre-diabetics, rather than garbage pails.

Food waste is a big topic — globally, a $427 billion a year worth of big topic, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

But to get a handle on it, we need  a new set of “re’s” beyond the stale 1980s-era “Reduce, reuse and recycle.”

We need to reframe, repurpose, and above all reimagine how waste can be eliminated on a system-wide basis by redesigning food systems.

Wayne Roberts is a leading analyst of urban food policy, and author of the e-book, Food for City Building. He volunteers on the steering committee of Sustain Ontario.

A photo of Wayne Roberts

Wayne Roberts

Wayne Roberts was best known for his leadership of the Toronto Food Policy Council during the years from 2000 to 2010. After retiring from the paid workforce, he served on boards of several food charities...