The biggest players in the world’s food and drink industry have made a promise to halve the food they waste by 2025. This pledge was made at a meeting in New York of the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), a network of around 400 retailers and manufacturers from 70 countries, with combined sales of $2.8 trillion. In order to meet this promise, the CGF will measure a baseline for 2016 and then establish monitoring and reporting systems for its members to quantify and reduce waste.
While it’s great that food waste is on the radar of such large companies, I can’t help but be a bit skeptical, especially when the CEO of Nestle says the move is particularly aimed to preserve natural resources like water. Nestle Waters is the world’s leading bottled water company worldwide, and has on multiple occasions come under fire for misuse of water (for instance, it’s currently continuing to use California groundwater, even in the midst of drought). These actions don’t exactly show a company commitment to the vision of protecting the earth’s water supply (not to mention reducing packaging waste). So while it may be a positive development to see food waste on the agenda, it could also be a way for companies to alleviate some of the public pressure and potential future regulation by looking like they’re already doing something about the problem. Time will tell, and hopefully this move is genuine, but in any event it might not hurt to turn up the pressure on private companies to cut back on food waste.
The World Union of Wholesale Markets is partnering with the FAO in order to address gaps in addressing food waste. The partnership was announced May 28 at WUWM’s conference in Budapest, and it will involve gathering information about food waste in wholesale markets, and then aiding stakeholders to improve logistics, design and operations in order to cut waste. The overall aim is to increase discussion of food waste in the supply chain in order to cut down on food waste, especially in urban areas. The FAO has focused more on household food waste, but this move shows attention to other parts of the food system. The goal is to find research-based best practices in order to create a more efficient food system, particularly in cutting food waste and reaching urban markets.
While researching organic waste collection programs across Canada I found this photo:
This photo made me disconcerted. It was from a presentation given at a conference entitled, “On the Road to Zero Waste: How Two of North America’s Leaders are Succeeding.” Nova Scotia was being held up as a shining example of how to crack down on waste. The province certainly has been a forerunner in waste by banning all compostable and recyclable materials from landfill. One huge area where regulations have made an impact is in the commercial sector. Many municipalities have good success with residents adopting the organic waste “green cart,” but the commercial sector can be a whole other story. That’s why this photo is included in the presentation, and I get it – it’s not always easy to get businesses to participate in waste diversion programs. But what irks me about the photo is she is happily throwing away what appear to be completely safe and tasty Timbits.
We don’t like seeing food become waste. However, that doesn’t mean we just squirm a little in our seats thinking about food in landfill and then pat ourselves (or Tim Horton’s) on the back for ‘doing the right thing’ and composting like in this photo. Composting is better than the landfill, but it isn’t a panacea: it doesn’t erase the energy, time, labour, and money that went into producing the food. Municipal composting isn’t free, and large scale composting facilities have steep financial and environmental costs. Seeing composting as the best solution ignores the waste hierarchy that most municipalities across Canada hold as the guide to waste reduction and management.
Diversion is good, but it isn’t the best option and municipalities seem to pay lip service to waste prevention and reuse (or food sharing and donation) while directing finances and energy into composting. Municipalities direct residents not first to reduction or sharing or even the backyard composter or worm bin but to the municipal program.The City of Kingston’s website says “If you can eat it, it can go in the Green Bin.” Really the message should be if you can eat it, eat it, then feed your animals or worms your organic non-edibles. Food that is unspoiled is better off in the compost than the landfill, but one step better is for it not to be created and if there is potential waste the first option to be explored should be revaluing as food (although one could make a case that Timbits are hardly food to begin with). Keeping in line with the waste hierarchy businesses and residents should firstly try to reduce the excess they produce, but when there is unspoiled food about to be thrown out they should put it to use, with food banks willing to accept it or organizations like Second Harvest that use food rescue as a means to combat hunger.
When we stop congratulating businesses for the edible food they compost and instead prevent it from winding up in the waste bin at all, multiple problems are solved at once. Businesses save money by reducing their waste, improve their reputation by helping out the needy, less energy and money is spent on waste transportation and processing, and those in need don’t go hungry. Metro Vancouver has issued a ban similar to Nova Scotia; however, it is making a point of directing businesses to organizations that accept food donations as well as protecting and informing businesses about legality of donating food. Efforts like those in Metro Vancouver offer some hope that a shift is coming. It is time that food waste realities line up with our supposed priorities, to put our money where our mouths are…or perhaps food waste where our mouths are.
There has been a lot of talk about the new law in France which will compel food retailers to donate unsold food rather than throw it out. Given our work in food waste, we’ve been asked a lot what our thoughts about it are. I’m scheduled for a 30 minute call in on radio this afternoon so thought I should pull my thoughts together and a blog post seems a reasonable approach to doing that.
First of all – reducing the amount of food that goes to landfill is a good thing. We should be looking at more ways to do that. Secondly, talking about food waste is a good thing. Higher awareness means lower waste – and not just at retail. Many Canadian retailers already divert product to food banks – largely from distribution centres. So what could possibly go wrong?
As always, the details will make all of the difference. Here are a couple of thoughts about implementation.
Where is the line? Some product that gets thrown out is clearly still edible and could be re-purposed. I was speaking to a student who regularly “liberates” food from behind food retailers just the other day. They found 8 wheels of brie and many potatoes and beets just the other day at a single retailer. I don’t know why it was thrown out but it was clearly still edible and was used. There is, however, also a significant volume of inedible spoilage. Who decides whats good and what isn’t? What happens to the stuff that isn’t? Will we burden charitable organizations with increased disposal costs? This needs to be figured out.
What is donatable? Fridge space is often an issue at food banks. What if they don’t want it? Some stuff simply doesn’t move well at a food bank. What if they don’t want it?
Who pays? There is already some donation. We don’t have a good sense of how much edible food is thrown out – although we know there is some. If retailers have to pay to sort and ship it to charities (assuming they have the capacity or ship it to multiple locations) this needs to be figured out. The classic operations management newsvendor problem suggests that as disposal costs go up, optimal order quantity goes down. Availability may decrease. That may be a good thing. Diversion (to charitites, animal feed or others uses) is a secondary objective to not generating the waste in the first place (apologies for the suggestion that providing food to the less fortunate as waste). Grocery stores may be more inclined to run out than to have to manage the diversion of excess. That may be a very good thing but it doesn’t increase the food going to food insecure individuals.
In principle this is a good idea. It remains to be seen whether it truly is in practice.
Read about our research and our thoughts on ugly food here “atGuelph”:
There has been considerable attention given to Loblaws’ recent announcement of their “Naturally Imperfect “product line. Naturally imperfect will introduce smaller or slightly misshapen food into grocery stores at a discount. The idea is to reduce the amount of waste upstream in the value chain and to improve access to these products at lower prices. Seems like a win win! I’ve had the chance to speak about it several times and, as always, things become clearer after you’ve spoken so a blog post seemed like a great idea.
A Great Idea
Reducing food waste is a great idea. Its not clear how much of some of this product is getting thrown out versus diverted into processing. That’s why we need more research on food waste at all stages of the value chain (a shameless plug for our ongoing project). What is clear is that some small produce is difficult to put through processing and is thrown out.
Improving access to affordable fruits and vegetables is a great idea. The price for perfection is higher. While we spend a lower proportion of our income on food than almost anywhere else in the world, we do have food insecure people and others who perhaps eat less fresh healthy produce than they might if it was more affordable. Why should we hold everyone’s diet hostage to a misguided standard of beauty. The nutrition is identical.
Raising awareness of food waste is a great idea. Our research suggests that the more people think about food and waste, the less food they waste. Just talking about the issue like this has the real potential to reduce household food waste – which we’ve measured at 4.5 kg per household per week.
Is there a downside?
There are folks at some farm organizations saying that this initiative has the potential to erode the prices they receive for their premium produce. That might be true but its not clear that it will happen.
1 – The economics of this aren’t as clear as the critics might suggest.
- if consumers don’t buy it, it won’t matter. I hardly expect that everyone will buy naturally imperfect so premium products will still exist. If lot’s of them buy it demand will drive the price up.
- When prices are lower, total demand increases. The increase in total demand may increase revenues rather than decrease them. Its not clear what will happen but this is as plausible as decreased revenues.
- Even if prices come down, the cost of production includes the produce that is thrown away. Including that in the total sales means revenue should increase.
- If the price for imperfect food that is not wasted is too low, the product will get diverted to processing markets rather than retail. The market will figure it out.
2 – This is not the first time I’ve had someone say we should continue to waste food to support farm returns. I had someone stand up once at a presentation and say we shouldn’t encourage household food waste reduction because it would lower demand and cost jobs and revenue in the production and processing sector. Its heartbreaking to consider that we would produce food to throw out just to keep people employed. Even if prices come down (which I argue above is not a sure thing), do we really want to use resources to produce product just to throw it away? Consumers can and will make the choice. Change happens. This position is indefensible and unsustainable. I can’t imagine making the argument in any other sector. We should scrap cars off the assembly line just to keep people in Windsor and Oshawa employed?
We should celebrate this initiative. We should buy these products. We should expand it to other product. We should expand it to other stores. Everyone, including producers, processors and retailers will be better off in the long run.
Between 25-40% of perfectly safe and perfectly edible produce is rejected by western supermarkets. Can you guess why? Purely cosmetic reasons! Cucumbers that are too curved or bananas that are too straight can’t be sold in most supermarkets. In the UK, it was even illegal to sell carrots that are forked (with a secondary branch). There’s a LOT of waste behind our perfectly uniform supermarket produce aisle!
Here’s what one French grocery chain is doing about it:
Could we get something similar happening in Canada?