Should you be eating that?

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Food Banks Canada estimates that almost 870,000 people turn to food banks every month, and that this number is on the rise. In the face of such statistics, it is easy to assume that the root cause is a food shortage. However the facts disagree: in fact, food waste is pervasive in most developed countries. In Toronto alone, almost 17.5 million kg of food goes to waste every month and the average American wastes 1400 calories per day. Worldwide, the numbers are even more shocking: almost half of the food produced is discarded somewhere along the processing, transportation and consumption chain. What a tragedy, when so may go hungry each year!

One might wonder what exactly this has to do with environmental issues. In the most fundamental sense, food waste contributes to climate change by producing greenhouse gases such as methane and hydrogen sulphide when organic matter decomposes. However, more concerning is the vast amount of energy used by conventional farming practices.  Over the past decade, 400 gallons of oil were required per person per year for food production in North America, and this number does not account for the packaging, processing and transportation of food to the consumers’ table.

A more recent study estimates that the food system consumes ten times more energy than it produces in food energy: this means that for an average 500 calorie lunch, 5000 calories were spent in processing the food and bringing it to your table! Much of this energy is supplied by non renewable fossil fuels, not to mention the pesticides, fertilizers and other contaminants used in the production process. The agricultural industry is one of the biggest consumers of freshwater and contributors to soil depletion and loss of biodiversity globally and research suggests that 1.2 acres of farmland are required per person to sustain the average North American annual caloric intake. Would you be more careful when preparing your dinner if you thought about the irretrievable resources, energy and environmental stress that went into producing it?

So how can you help in this upcoming holiday season? Well, first and foremost, buy less. Plan meals and measure ingredients, rather than throwing everything into your cart at the grocery store and hoping that some of it will be useful. Save the leftovers, instead of throwing out food that isn’t finished right away: most meals will keep for at least a week if frozen immediately. If possible, shop at a local farmer’s market or visit a community garden, to reduce the energy intensity of your food supply. If you’re going out to eat, choose restaurants that allow for flexible portion sizes- not only is this better for your health and wallet, but it diverts food from the landfill.

On a larger scale, the food packaging industry is in desperate need of updated regulations to avoid too-conservative estimates of expiry dates on perishable items that leads to people throwing out still-edible food. Institutions and businesses should push to employ catering services that follow ethical food practices such as reduced packaging and using local, seasonal produce, and donating extras to food banks and community organizations. Finally, as always: education is key and families and schools can play a huge role in educating children about consuming less, storing more and buying responsibly. Perhaps this year, in addition to telling kids to finish their vegetables because many less-fortunate families are going without, we could also add that many gallons of water were spent, volumes of fossil fuels burnt and tons of CO2 expelled to bring that misshapen carrot to their dining table.