A new report from food rescue organization Second Harvest has illustrated the severity of Canada’s food waste problem and suggested some core solutions that the food industry can implement to resolve the issue.
Second Harvest’s findings show that Canada’s food system wastes almost all of the surplus edible food it produces, when it could instead be rescued and redistributed to people experiencing hunger.
Surplus edible food is defined within the report as food that is good to eat but is surplus to industry requirements, or food that is not consumed before reaching its “best before” date.pa
Startingly, only about four per cent of Canada’s surplus edible food is redistributed to the charitable food network. Ninety-six percent of the surplus within our food system is either thrown away or diverted to an alternate use such as animal feed or biofuel.
How much surplus edible food is there?
Second Harvest’s survey of a representative sample of businesses that could be potential donors of surplus edible food within Canada’s food industry found that 45 per cent believed they have surplus edible food. Within that group, 15 per cent estimate they have over one tonne a month of surplus edible food, compared to 85 per cent which produce less than one tonne a month.
From there, Second Harvest estimated that Canada has 3.2 million metric tonnes of surplus edible food nationally.
How much is wasted?
Of that 3.2 million tonnes, a conservative estimate of 3.1 million tonnes becomes food waste by being sent to destinations like landfills instead of being rescued and donated. It is highly likely that even more surplus edible food exists within the food system, as businesses are often reluctant to quantify surplus amounts and avoid donating due to food safety and public liability concerns, along with financial considerations.
In the context of the fact that, in January 2022, almost 60 per cent of Canadians reported having difficulty feeding their families due to financial hardship, this is an unacceptable level of food waste. It is particularly problematic at a time when soaring inflation rates are pushing food prices higher and supply chains are threatened due to the pandemic crisis, as well as damaging factors such as extreme weather, labour shortages, and global conflict.
Retailers are most likely to say that they have surplus edible food (61 per cent of retail respondents), followed by processors/manufacturers and hotels/restaurants/ (46 per cent and 43 per cent, respectively). Those who handle fresh produce are more likely to say they have surplus food (42 per cent). The sector with the most available surplus food is hotels/restaurants/
institutions — but this is also where 94 per cent of respondents have less than one tonne of surplus food per month. Notably, this sector donates the lowest percentage (0.38 per cent) of its available surplus food.
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Highly nutritious, perishable foods could be rescued
Businesses operating in the grains industry are the least likely to report having surplus food (30 per cent), followed by the protein industry (31 per cent). While nearly half (45 per cent) of dairy industry respondents say they
have surplus edible food, the willingness of farmers to donate surplus milk, for example, is affected by having to process and package it into consumer goods as well as the restrictive marketing board system of supply management.
Why aren’t these foods donated?
There are business reasons behind the food industry’s reluctance to acknowledge the existence of surplus edible food and donate it.
Second Harvest found that the five major reasons are:
- Lack of tangible financial benefit
- Legal liability
- Policies that discourage or prevent donation
- Ineffective communication or coordination with food rescue organizations
- Perceived complexity to donate versus alternative disposal
What can be done?
Second Harvest notes that reducing food waste is a systemic challenge that requires collaboration across the supply chain, and found that the greatest immediate opportunities to rescue more food lie in the hotel/restaurant/institution sector.
An immediate financial benefit that businesses can gain when donating food versus sending it to landfill is the elimination of disposal fees, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a key element of corporate social
responsibility metrics, which are important to stakeholders. Studies show that redistributing surplus edible food improves food-related greenhouse gas emissions seven-fold, compared to sending it to landfill. On average, the rescue and redistribution of surplus edible food equates to a reduction of 3.82 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions for each tonne of food. Also, the donation of surplus food is socially responsible from the perspective of improving the health and well-being of vulnerable populations, and society as a whole.
The report concludes that there is a need to incentivize businesses to donate more surplus edible food and that the following solutions should be trialled and implemented via pilot programs within the food industry:
- Government policy changes including tax relief grants tied to food donation and increased landfill costs. Businesses need incentives to donate surplus edible food because of the resulting financial good.
- Establishing common standardized food rescue and redistribution processes and procedures such as optimizing current practices, addressing perceived complexities and cost concerns, providing easy-to-implement processes and procedures, and encouraging businesses to quantify how much surplus food is edible. It also involves better information about best-before dates and legal liabilities around
food spoilage to assure donors that food is safe to donate.
- Validate surplus edible food by establishing a business case for donation.
Looking at surplus edible food donation as a sound financial decision rather than a cost — plus a way to acquire social capital and increase employee engagement — will encourage more food industry businesses to explore how much surplus edible food they have and to donate more.
- Formalized repurposing operations, such as repackaging bulk items and
branded packages would reduce concerns around brand image and increase willingness to donate foods.
- Coordinated logistics (along with information, support, and capacity
development services), such as a localized safe food collection hub like the Second Harvest food rescue app, will increase donation by reducing the need for businesses to provide storage, labour and transport costs.