Thursday, November 24, 2011

Want not.

As we approach the Giving Season, my Scrooginess has lead me to think about waste. A while back, I read an editorial in the Manitoba Cooperator about a study on Canadian food waste that had just come out of the University of Guelph. I was curious about it, so I asked the editor, Laura Rance, where I could find the study. It has been published online since.

I had a fair number of criticisms of the study's methodology and foci (who, me?), but Laura gently suggested that the study had value in sparking interest and further research. I think it is spot-on in its premise: 'Along with the rest of the world, Canada invests enormous resources in seeking ways to feed a growing population through increased production.  Far fewer resources are invested in making more effective use of the food already produced, even though doing so would have immediate results.'

The most startling revelation is that 40% of food that is produced in Canada ends up wasted, and the great majority of waste in the food supply chain - 51 percent - occurs at the consumer household level.

Because the authors are 'value chain' specialists, they only briefly address this household waste. Primarily, they look for ways waste is created as food moves along the chain, such as poor cooling of raspberries post-harvest and feeding animals until they are overly fat. They talk about waste due to processors receiving "products that do not meet the required specifications" and their recommendation is to change things on the farm.

A Maclean's article they reference deals with this issue in a much more comprehensive way, addressing retailer and consumer preferences for cosmetically pleasing produce and the laws (such as retailed carrots in Britain having to be a certain diameter) that facilitate this waste of imperfect produce. Paul Roberts tells a story in The End of Food (link) about green beans heading from Africa to a European market - 7 of 15 tonnes were waste because they were not of a certain length and straightness. We, of course, also pay the price of having to eat long-lasting uniform tomatoes, for example, instead of tastier ones.

I am curious about what the authors of the Guelph report do not address - any sociological reasons why waste occurs. What, in addition to techno-fixes, could result in the changes in production and consumption habits that lead to waste. For example, I would estimate that a fair amount of food waste is due to deskilling of the consumer. If you don't know how to use less popular cuts of meat, or that you can freeze celery leaves and vegetable ends for stock, then those things will be wasted.

I'm also curious if you have seen any initiatives that are working to address waste.


  1. Yes, important points -- making stock from veggie scraps doesn't seem to be a common practice anymore.

    Regarding grading guidelines, Canada also has some pretty crazy standards. Here they are for the carrot:

  2. Dang! Yet another reason direct-to-consumer can be preferable for growers. I love even my tiny, forked carrots.