The COVID-19 pandemic has given us a rare glimpse at just how fragile our world is. The sheer interconnectedness of our lives that caused previous meltdowns in financial markets has now caused meltdowns in all sectors across the globe. And the way society has reacted to the pandemic is no different than how investors react in the financial markets. We let go of what we believe is toxic and we invest in resources that we believe to be valuable. Now is the time to change our approach and proactively recognize that all major issues on earth impact one another.
Just like in the financial markets, sometimes perceived value comes into play more so than real value, as we have seen with hoarding of toilet paper. We are now in an experiment forcing us to refocus our lifestyle on necessities. People can live without long-distance travel and going out for food but they need to eat.
Though grocery stores and select restaurants have remained open, they have faced instances of inventory shortage. While temporarily cutting out non-essential business to combat the pandemics is important, it puts extra strain on grocery stores. There is no simple solution but how we choose to manage our food supply now will determine how our society will thrive afterwards and perhaps for the next century.
With the technology available to optimize yield and production, food shortage is still an ongoing issue that plagues the world, even when not in a pandemic lockdown. North America alone has contributed the vast majority of food waste in the world. Though the global numbers are uncertain, North America creates $278 billion worth of food waste annually. That’s 168 million tonnes of food to landfills, adding 193 million tonnes of carbon emissions.
So Why the Waste?
When companies think about food waste, they think may think about overproduction or inaccurate forecasting. While this may be part of the problem, the majority of food waste is due to culling and brand standards. Culling is the process of sorting produce or livestock by certain characteristics. It is most prevalent in fruits and vegetables where items with unwanted physical attributes are discarded before they make their way to the local grocery store or restaurant wholesaler. These could be the odd looking strawberry or carrot that you almost never see — totally fine to eat but a bit odd to look at. This unnecessary standard is one of the major reasons we have food waste and why our food costs are so high.
Even more than culling, brand standards are the main culprit in food waste. Many branded foods are processed and account for most of the food waste sent to landfills each year. The most notorious brand standard that is almost always misinterpreted is “expiry dates.” These dates indicate freshness and are used by manufacturers to indicate when the product is at its peak. It does not mean that the food has become inedible. Unfortunately, we treat it as so and companies throw out these goods when nearing that date. Salvage stores, which are common in the US, often sell past-expiry goods as it’s legal to do so under the FDA. But most products are simply sent to the landfill in order to protect their brand reputation. Some food companies choose to pay a landfill tipping fee to save time and avoid any dilution of their brand at cheaper stores.
What We Can Do
We can help by taking your grocery shopping to companies that “rescue” fresh produce that would normally be thrown out. There are many “food rescue” companies out there so please search for your local businesses. Salvage stores are also a great way to not only support reduction in food waste but also save money. You can find nearly “expired” products, such as flour and cereal, which are safe to eat and you won’t taste a difference. If we increase our demand for these “unsaleable” foods, companies will also be incentivized to sell their goods for less, rather than simply throw them out.