It has been estimated that food waste in Canada amounts to some 2.2 million tonnes of edible food annually at a cost of more than $17 billion. And it's not simply a problem of economics. That 2.2 million tonnes of waste converts to 9.8 million tonnes of excess CO2, or the equivalent of 2.1 million extra cars on the road—cars that are essentially sitting in idle, going nowhere fast.
This is plainly unsustainable—and considering that 4.4 million Canadians in 2017-18 (the last period for which we have data), or nearly 12 per cent of the population, is food insecure, it's also unnecessary and unacceptable. But what do we do about it? Well, the easy answer is that we can all actually eat the food we buy before it spoils, or before it degrades enough to no longer seem palatable. And maybe we could donate more, and more often, to our local Food Banks and other organizations at the forefront of the fight against hunger in Canada.
But easy answers are easy for a reason: they're usually not the best or most complete ones. To be sure, better household food management will be part of the solution, but it is not the only, or even likely the most significant, part. That's because the problem is largely systemic, requiring a systemic response.
What shape might an appropriate response take? I think it will be circular—by which I mean, the circular economy, an economic model in which products and input materials are continuously re-circulated rather than discarded. The aim of this model is to avoid waste by preserving the value of resources for as long as possible, resulting in greater efficiency and profitability, better innovation and stronger relationships with customers—and, yes, less waste and lower costs.
Anyone familiar with the "three Rs" of waste hierarchy—reduce, reuse, recycle—knows the basic concept of the circular economy isn't new. But challenges like resource availability, unpredictable growing conditions, pressures on supply and margins in food production, and changing consumer preferences all demand that we rethink inefficient and wasteful linear models in our food supply chains.
Everything old is new again
In addition to the immediate positive benefits of reducing food waste for families, our communities and the environment more broadly, a circular economy approach to agribusiness can also create opportunities for new business models to emerge and for financial benefits to be captured from what was otherwise being squandered. As suggested by my last post, AgTech promises to be essential to getting us there, beginning with Internet of Things technologies that facilitate food producers' ability to harness data in ways that improve productivity, reduce waste, improve worker safety, and much more.
But old habits die hard, and actually implementing and following a circular economy model will require a shift in mindset. And it's a shift that represents one of the most important transformational challenges that government, business and communities collectively face. That's why it also represents one of our most important opportunities.
For many, the linear model of "take, make, dispose" is entrenched. But just like the more than two million tonnes of food that someone in this country could have eaten in a given year but didn't or couldn't, the linear model is simply unsustainable. For one, resources are already strained, becoming increasingly difficult and more expensive to acquire. This goes some way to explaining why the numbers of hungry people in Canada have been rising, not declining—a trend seen globally, as well, according to the United Nations.
To fight the compound problems of waste and hunger through a circular approach, the entire agribusiness value chain should be looking, as a first step, to improve our ability to keep food fresher for longer. This could involve enhancing storage conditions and logistics; maximizing opportunities to convert waste into energy, feedstock, fertilizer or other products; and doing a better job of informing consumers about food production and transportation processes, the impact of food waste, portion sizes, and storage instructions. Meanwhile, brands, retailers, chefs, and other food providers have a major influence on what we eat. In circular models, they can play the critical role of designing recipes, menus and products (including compostable or reusable packaging) that are healthy not just for us but also the environment.
Yes, the practical implications of "reduce, reuse, recycle" on individuals and organizations alike are easier to describe than to address. But the circular economy isn't an easy answer to excessive food waste, food insecurity and hunger. Right now, it's the best and most complete one.