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Op Ed: Clean Your Plate! Wasting Food Exacts a Heavy Toll on the Environment

Wednesday, October 10th 2012 9:18:34am

By Gord Miller

Environmental Commissioner of Ontario

It’s an uncertainty we can all relate to. You go to your refrigerator to get some milk, yogurt or sliced meat, and wonder whether you need to throw it out because the “best before” date has just passed.

This misplaced concern is widespread. A British study by the Waste and Resources Action Program has found that close to 50% of consumers are confused about the meaning of food labels such as “best before.” This confusion is just one example of the number of ways food gets wasted in our society.

And we do waste a tremendous amount of food in Canada. A recent study estimated that 40% of the food we produce each year is not actually consumed. It’s lost during processing, packaging and transportation, as well as later in the retail stores, restaurants and in our homes. This loss amounts to some $27 billion dollars annually. Statistics Canada estimated that in 2007 we wasted the equivalent of 183 kilograms of food per person.

Wasting food is not just a waste of money; it has significant environmental costs. Consider for a moment the hundreds of trillions of litres of fresh water that is wasted on food that will never be eaten. Humans use more water for agriculture than for any other use. Then consider the significant amounts of energy and packaging that are used to bring the food to market. An estimated 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the production and preparation of food. To add insult to injury, when our uneaten food is buried in landfill, it produces methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more potent than CO2.

Food waste occurs all along the food chain, from “field to fork.” But more than 50% of all the food wasted in Canada is wasted in our homes. And, like most problems, it can be prevented.

Let’s start with the real meaning of the “best before” date. It does not mean that the food in the unopened package is going to spoil on the date printed on the label. As the Canadian Food Inspection Agency says “you can buy and eat [unopened] foods after the ‘best before’ date has passed. However, when this date has passed, the food may lose some of its freshness and flavour, or its texture may have changed. Some of its nutritional value … may also be lost.” Unfortunately, with so little public education about what “best before” dates actually mean, consumers frequently throw out perfectly edible food under the mistaken belief that it is not safe to eat.

We all have a role to play in reducing food waste. The federal and provincial governments could provide better guidance on food labelling, and sponsor public education campaigns on the best ways to reduce food waste. This paid off in the United Kingdom, where household food waste dropped by 13% following a public awareness campaign.

Manufacturers, restaurants and hotels can increase their donations of unwanted foodstuffs to food banks, shelters and other social service agencies.  Farmers can encourage “gleaning” of their fields and collection of crops left on the ground after harvest. All-you-can-eat restaurants and cafeterias can eliminate trays, as people tend to fill their trays whether they want the food or not.

The environmental costs of letting good food go to waste are staggering. Governments can’t reach into our homes and force us to eat our crusts, but they should be providing us with the knowledge, tools and incentives to help us to stop wasting food.