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The Food Waste Crisis in Canada

In this digital age of challenge and change, society has finally begun to tune into the dangers of global warming. The key term, first penned by Wally Broeker in the yellow calm of summer 1975, has since snowballed into a global emergency threatening our very existence. Today, with Californian skies painted a chilling blood-red and Vancouver skylines bound in smoke, it is clear to see that climate change is now. Despite our realization of the crisis, what are we actively doing to prevent it? I for one had felt helpless when it came to creating ecological change. How can I, your average Canadian teenager, stop a massive disaster so prevalent? Well, I found it best not to think about it. It was only in hearing a new French perspective that I understood eco-friendly habits are imperative. By examining my lifestyle, one deeply rooted in unsustainable and unethical patterns, I recognized that I was a part of the problem. The most noteworthy issue? Food waste; an emergency swept under the rug by Canadians time and time again. It is serious, it overheats our planet, and it is killing us.

Not Just One Bad Egg

Photo by Justus Manke

In the summer of 2019, Inès Claude, my French companion, came to visit Ontario for the first time. She was surprised to see leftover food, along with its embarrassingly extensive plastic packaging, be thrown away so easily. When she asked me about it I couldn’t answer her, because I had never stopped to think of it myself. My blatant disregard for the waste I was creating is a flaw I’m not proud of, and one that is shared with many across North America. I ask you, the reader, have you wasted any food today? How about this week? To us, as individuals, the loss may seem insignificant, but in reality, Canada’s food-wasting habits are rotten to the core. A 2019 research project conducted by Second Harvest Canada found that the previous year, approximately 49 billion dollars worth of food was wasted. This amounts to around 1,766 dollars per Canadian household. The consequence? In that year, food waste produced around 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, which is equivalent to over 2.1 million cars on the road! 

Hard to Digest

The process of getting food from the farm to the fork is an extensive one, and produce is undoubtedly lost on the way. The most troubling part is that this system is not broadcasted to your everyday Canadian. To put it into perspective, a 2017 study directed by the National Zero Waste Council concluded that every day in Canada we waste 470,000 heads of lettuce, 1,200,000 tomatoes, 2,400,000 potatoes, 750,000 loaves of bread, 1,225,000 apples, 555,000 bananas, 1,000,000 cups of milk, and 450,000 eggs. Since then, the numbers have only grown. Now, we’re stuck in a vicious cycle; the more food we buy and waste, the more demand increases. All of this excess production and consumption generates a wide set of ecological problems. It just goes to show, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

A Recipe for Disaster

It goes without saying that here in Canada, valuable food is wasting away for no reason other than human negligence. So, let’s talk about the cause and effect of this waste. Wasted food, agriculture, and overproduction account for around 16% of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. But how? Well, when food is disposed of, it begins to break down. During decomposition, the food releases carbon dioxide. These gases blanket the earth in a way that traps heat and insulates us. As of late, however, the immense uprising in greenhouse gas emissions has overheated the planet, and the consequences are far from pretty. Quite possibly the most pressing issue, and one we tend to overlook, is the food left to rot in landfills. When food lacks proper nutrients and oxygen in the dump, the food will produce methane. This greenhouse gas is said to be 28 times more harmful than CO2 emissions, according to National Geographic. Despite many governments boasting their ‘green thumb’ these gas levels continue to skyrocket, heavily contributing to some of the biggest issues our world faces today: air pollution, wildfires, extreme weather, species extinctions, rising sea levels, and this is just the tip of the (melting) iceberg. 

The Cream of the Crop

At a first glance, reducing food waste within Canada seems like an impossible feat. There are so many gears involved in the food and agriculture industry, that it is easy to feel like we are too far gone. But after visiting France and learning about their sustainable way of life, I can assure you this is not the case. France has been publicly renowned for its eco-friendly initiatives; it has even been labelled the ‘top country in the world in methods of food sustainability’ by The Food Sustainability Index. So, what did they do right? Well, France has put many systems in place to fight climate change, and the government did not back down in terms of food waste. In 2016, the Senate unanimously voted to pass the Food Waste Bill, making it a requirement for supermarkets to distribute their leftover food to shelters, charities, and to poor communities. To enforce this, stores must pay $4,500 each time they infringe on this law. In addition, France has also committed to increasing prices for products that use plastic packaging. My visit to France in 2019 was a massive wake-up call to the sustainable living habits I should be exercising, and it was all thanks to my friend Inès Claude. A teenager raised in Western France, Inès continually works to make choices for the environment when developing routines. Her family has developed a network of local and organic producers in her region to buy dry products from, and also have a strict no-plastic policy in the home. When I asked for her perception of Canada’s sustainable practices, she advised that we still had a long way to go. Most importantly, she mentioned that Canada should be teaching their kids about the urgency of climate change, the way she had learned growing up: “You need to change almost everything [about the way you handle sustainability,] and you need to have convictions. You need to know why you’re doing it… [Canada’s sustainability problem] surprised me, but also made me sad, because there weren’t a lot of people who seemed to really care about the environment and the emergency.” However, this is not to say that France is perfect: “I think what the government is doing is not enough, it’s like a screen. They act like they are committed to sustainability by making laws like banishing plastic bags, straws, and making cantines cook organic foods in schools… They have projects. But France isn’t only its government (fortunately,) and so you can find a lot of sustainable associations, shops for organic food, etc..”

Food For Thought

Photo by Markus Spiske

You’d think that the alarming Canadian statistics would strike the government as predominant, yet instead of addressing it, they appear out to lunch. Although there are a few reward systems created by the government for exceptionalism in sustainable development, there are no steps to actively prevent food waste in Canada. This is where the real problem lies: the powers at be must work to find ethical solutions to waste in the food industry, especially in terms of production. Just because our government is giving a cold shoulder to the food crisis unfolding before us doesn’t mean we have to. In fact, a study by Second Harvest found that 63% of all food waste within homes is avoidable! It is our time to shop smart, use meal plans, save leftovers, and to be imaginative with the products we eat! If fruit is past its prime, turn it into a smoothie. Create broths out of old vegetables, and save seeds if you can. These small steps will help to reduce your carbon footprint and contribute to Canada’s sustainable development. Saving you some money is just the cherry on top!

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