The Big Picture Versus Big Meme of Wasted Food

By Wayne Roberts

‘Food waste is very photogenic. Food scattered around a landfill site is an attention-grabbing, if repulsive, photo-op. Oddly shaped veggies and fruit can be re-imagined as cute and cuddly conversation pieces. A picture is worth a thousand words. But a meme that sticks in the brain is worth a thousand appeals to reason.’

For our field trip in this week’s newsletter, I‘d like to take you for a stroll along the boardwalk beside Lake Ontario in the heart of the Toronto Beaches, where Tammara Soma and I discussed her exciting idea for a “food system lab” to develop policy approaches that link food waste with sustainability, food security and Indigenous rights.

Before getting to our strolling conversation on this project, let me give you my career tip of the week, which comes from ten years of experience at the staff helm of the Toronto Food Policy Council. I always made time to talk at length with at least one student a week — which added up to about 500 great strolls over my decade on the job, and now totals about 1000 since I made the original commitment. I did that partly to “pay backward,” and thank the many people who made time to mentor me, and partly to make sure I stayed in tune with the new blood coming into the food movement, and to make use of the fresh, bold and excited ideas of youth as a lens to see the kinds of policy potential our mandate requires. I recommend this time management principle to anyone. Your time will be repaid many times over.

Back to the Beaches boardwalk, and to Tammara Soma, who won a prestigious Trudeau fellowship to do her PH D in planning on food waste issues in her birthplace, Indonesia. She’s used her fellowship, and additional funding from the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation, to rally people behind her food system lab approach to food waste. Her request to me was to strengthen and encourage her resolve to think big and bold about food waste.

Thinking big and bold is essential on this topic because of the extraordinary take-up the food waste issue has enjoyed. Organizations responsible for food waste obviously assessed the public mood as too hot to allow them to sit on the issue and block its development – which is the standard response on food matters.

Instead, both governments and corporations adopted what is called “pre-emptive reform” – making enough noise and notion of motion to be thought of as responsive, while narrowing the issues down so that attention is focused on technical fixes the people in power can apply.

It has to be said that this approach has been quite successful; they’ve kept food waste from being discussed as a food system problem, and instead created a discourse in which consumer habits must share, and even own, most of the blame. Corporations will do their bit, but the consumers must do the heavy lifting by shopping and storing food more carefully.

Issue #1: Food labs need to reclaim food waste as a food system problem.

Not to let consumers off the hook when it comes to behaviors they should shoulder responsibility for, but we cannot begin to understand food waste unless it’s understood as a full-blown system issue. Consumer-related waste — the lettuce you bought but didn’t finish, and ended up tossing in the garbage; the carrot you didn’t buy because it was misshapen; the milk you didn’t buy because you took the best-before date to mean safe-before – are just the crowning insults to a very long list of wasteful practices embedded in popular culture, government regulations and subsidies, and corporate practices.

If we want to talk waste, and the abuse of resources that lead to environmental damage and hunger, the scandal goes far beyond much-ballyhooed statistics. It’s true: if food waste were a country, it would be the third biggest emitter of global warming gases in the world, after the US and China. It’s also true that Canada governments spend $31 billion to collect and landfill wasted food every year, while governments around the world spend over $500 billion dollars – more than enough to sponsor school meal and snack programs that could dramatically reduce childhood malnutrition.

Food waste is very photogenic. Food scattered around a landfill site is an attention-grabbing, if repulsive, photo-op. Oddly shaped veggies and fruit can be reimagined as cute and cuddly conversation pieces. A picture is worth a thousand words, but a meme that sticks in the brain is worth a thousand appeals to reason.

If we want to see food waste, we have to look beyond landfill sites.

We need pictures of livestock fed exclusively on grains raised on class 1 land, instead of pasture that grows well on less fertile lands; we need to see medical operations on typical North Americans and Europeans who eat twice as much meat as their nutritional needs call for; we need pictures of government subsidies that fund farmers to grow grains that feed livestock (and increasingly fuel cars), instead of grains, pulses and produce that nourish people. We need pictures of North America’s urban and suburban lawns, landscapes of conspicuous consumption grown on some of the most fertile land on the continent. We need pictures like those depicted in the movie Just Eat It, revealing piles of food destroyed because of faulty labels. We need pictures of old-style milk, beer and juice bottles that used to be reused multiple times, providing green re-use jobs in every region, so we remember they have been displaced by disposable plastics, which – to rub salt in the wound – governments subsidize by assigning the cost of recycling to taxpayers. We need pictures of toilets full of human waste (aka, digested food) that will be carried by water, the world’s most precious resource, and dumped into rivers, lakes and oceans, source of fisheries and drinking water, instead of composted and converted into Class 1 fertilizer. We need pictures of the size of government checks written for scientists and corporations that promise to increase food yields, and we need to compare those to pictures of the tiny checks written to scientists and companies working to increase food conservation.

We need, in short, pictures that depict an irrational food system which governments, by and large, legislate, subsidize or turn a blind eye to. Food waste needs to be understood as part of a larger pattern of resource abuse. If we need bad guys in the picture, it will not be hapless consumers, who’ve had the wool pulled over their eyes.

Issue #2: Also on the big picture front, “food waste” has to be renamed “wasted food,” because waste is a verb, not a noun.

Food comes from Nature, and Nature has no waste. There is nothing garbage about garbage until it is tossed into a garbage can and dumped in a garbage dump. Until it’s mixed up, dirtied and crushed by the garbage system, what we call garbage is a resource that has been put in the wrong place.

Our minds have been tricked into allowing that because we’ve been raised to think in terms of linear systems that put humans at the pinnacle, just as much as people in earlier centuries were raised to think in terms of a flat earth at the center of the universe. To get rid of garbage, we need to learn to think of and see circular systems – not supply chains that go from farm to fork but circles that go from soil to soil, ocean to ocean, and dust to dust.

The place where all food scraps have to go is to compost heaps that create conditioners that enrich the soil. But there’s no reason to do that recycling and re-use too quickly. We can wring other uses for it, sometimes as a resource for bio-fuel, a process that still leaves lots for soil creation, and sometimes as feed for livestock, and insects that can be fed to livestock and fish.

This is how cities can turn wasted food from a billion dollar cost to a billion dollar asset.

This also reveals the genius of Tammara Soma’s idea of linking good wasted food policy with good policy on Indigenous peoples, beginning, perhaps, with respect for the worldview of most Indigenous peoples, who saw life on the planet as circular creations, not as linear products, some of which became garbage after one use.

Issue #3: A good food lab relates ways of operationalizing remedies to wasted food.

That, not analysis or policy, is the 800-pound gorilla. If governments weren’t so intent on being part of the problem instead of part of the solution, fixing the problem would be as simple as rocket science, a trick we’ve mastered scores of times.

‘The difficult we can do right away,’ some companies like to brag. ‘The impossible takes a little longer.’

The wasted food version of that, I think, is ‘the complicated we can do right away, the complex takes a bit longer.’

Governments, with their strong departmentalized silos and weak multidisciplinary teams, are in the linear thinking business. Municipal governments are most amenable to changing their ways in this regard, I believe, which is one reason why we should focus on municipal solutions to wasted food.

The starting point might be following the medical principle of ‘first, do no harm.’ Governments should stop subsidizing and privileging waste. Instead of forcing taxpayers to pay for recycling of throwaway containers, make the corporations that chose to produce the disposables pay for the privilege. Almost immediately, that will favor local producers, who can handle heavier multiple use containers much more easily – as they did in the days when reusable milk containers were common because dairies were local.

As well, instead of picking up garbage for free and making people pay for composters, cities could pay for composters and teach people how to use them and even help people (such as seniors and people with disabilities) do the composting.

Civic litter departments should find a way to charge junk food companies for the container litter that their customers drop on public property such as streets and parks. Companies would not be charged if they provided compostable containers, which could be placed in special ‘garbage’ cans for compostables.

But here I’m getting into matters that Tamarra’s food lab needs to deal with. And I have a vested interest in helping that process to happen. As of the end of our stroll, I am a Special Advisor to the Food Systems Lab.