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Waste not, want not

January 22, 2013  By Marg Land

I’m guilty. I admit it.

My household is one of many the Institution of Mechanical Engineers discusses in its latest research report – Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not.

According to the 31-page report, the world produces about four billion metric tons of food each year.

“Yet, due to poor practices in harvesting, storage and transportation as well as market and consumer wastage, it’s estimated that 30 to 50 per cent (1.2 to 2 billion tons) of all food produced never reaches a human stomach,” the report summarizes.

I can attest to that. In my household, good intentions combined with an overly optimistic idea of how my children feel about vegetables has led to the demise of many a carrot and cucumber. The weekly refrigerator purge of almost sentient broccoli and limp zucchini is discouraging in its relation to my children’s anti-veggie stance and my family’s finances.

It would appear I’m not alone. According to the report, in developed countries, more efficient farming practices, and better transportation, storage and processing facilities have resulted in a larger volume of the harvest making it to the store. But once the food reaches the supermarket, the wastage begins either when the produce is rejected or after it’s purchased and enters consumers’ homes.

“Overall, between 30 and 50 per cent of what has been bought in developed countries is thrown away by the purchaser,” the report states.


But surprisingly, developed countries aren’t the biggest wasters of food.

“In less-developed countries, such as those of sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, wastage tends to occur primarily at the farmer-producer end of the supply chain,” the study reports. “Inefficient harvesting, inadequate local transportation and poor infrastructure mean that produce is frequently handled inappropriately and stored under unsuitable farm-site conditions.”

As a country becomes more developed, the area of concern for food loss usually moves further up the supply chain.
“In Southeast Asian countries, losses of rice can range from 37 to 80 per cent of total production, depending on development stage, which amounts to total wastage in the region of about 180 million metric tons annually,” the report states. “In China, a country experiencing rapid development, the rice loss figure is about 45 per cent, whereas in less-developed Vietnam, rice losses between the field and the table can amount to 80 per cent of production.”
So how can the world expect to feed about 9.5 billion people by 2075?

According to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) needs to work with the international engineering community to ensure governments from developed countries share their engineering knowledge, technology and design know-how with developing countries. The organization also believes that developing countries need to think seriously about minimizing waste when planning and developing future transportation and storage facilities. Furthermore, developed countries need to examine their policies to help change consumers’ expectations.

“These should discourage retailers from wasteful practices that lead to the rejection of food on the basis of cosmetic characteristics and losses in the home due to excessive purchasing by consumers,” the report states.

While I’m optimistic engineers and scientists can help curtail food wastage in the developing world through technological advancement, I’m less inclined to believe that consumer preferences in the developed world can be changed. People are attracted to shiny, clean, healthy-looking fruit and vegetables. Getting consumers to accept bruised apples with a slight case of scab or broccoli with a small patch of bug damage seems highly unlikely. It might be more advantageous to encourage less cosmetically appealing produce be routed to the processing sector, where faults can be removed and food stored long term.

Now, if only Canada boasted a larger processing industry …

I also wanted to take some of this space to congratulate the Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Service, typically referred to as FARMS, for its recent recognition by the Ontario Fruit & Vegetable Growers’ Association. FARMS, which manages the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), received the OFVGA’s Award of Merit in honour of its contribution to the Ontario horticulture sector.

“The service of FARMS to our industry is invaluable and the organization is a very deserving winner of this award,” said Art Smith, CEO of the OFVGA. “Our industry depends very strongly on the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program as our core labour program. Without the work of FARMS, this program wouldn’t be in place and Ontarians would not be able to enjoy many of our great locally grown fruit and vegetable crops.”

FARMS was formed in 1987 to manage the administration of SAWP. This includes looking after transportation of workers to and from Canada, negotiating the terms and conditions of employment with both the Canadian and host governments, as well as other issues that could affect the continued success of the program. About 20,000 workers come to Canada each year through SAWP and many have been working on the same farms for 20 to 30 years.

“FARMS is a tireless advocate for labour issues in Ontario horticulture and both farmers and the many thousands of people who come here every year to work depend on their efforts to keep the program going,” said Smith. “If Canada had no workers under SAWP, more than half of the Canadian horticulture market would be lost to imports – and many popular but labour-intensive crops could no longer be grown here.”

Bravo, FARMS. Here’s to many more years of success. ❦

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