A new report focused on the financial cost of climate change came out from the IPCC in March of this year. Two key points for Canadians:

  1. “The 2016 wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., caused $3 billion in insured damages alone. And in 2017, fire suppression cost the province $500 million.”
  2. “The 2013 Calgary flood which cost $1.8 billion in insurance losses and an additional $6 billion in uninsured costs.”

These disasters are only going to become more frequent and extreme as we continue to feed climate change with increasingly more greenhouse gases (GHGs). Unfortunately, one of the sources of GHGs are farms themselves.

Roughly 13% of food that goes to landfill is fruit and veg coming directly from farms, that’s a whole lot of fruit and vegetables being grown, and then immediately dumped. It’s a travesty. But does it need to be?

There must be ways to better preserve or process our surplus and misfit produce. What about composting? Why not just convert it all into biofuels? Surely all of these ‘excess’ fruits and vegetables could be fed to animals as feed? Well, these are all much more complicated than they might appear.

Let’s talk about the Food Recovery Hierarchy. Research shows that some forms of food recovery are more beneficial to the environment, society, and the economy than others.

A quick note on transportation: for *almost* all of the following methods, the food to be disposed of needs to be moved to an appropriate location. While the financial cost of this isn’t all that high, it’s still a cost. Moreover, transportation further emits greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change.

Landfill

This is simply dumping the food. This is pretty clearly the worst option as not only does all that food not get consumed, because it’s mixed in with all kinds of other trash, it doesn’t break down into anything we can use and instead decays into greenhouse gases. For example, landfills are responsible for 23% of Canada’s methane emissions. This means that all the energy, labour, fuel, etc that went into the production of that food is not only just wasted, but producing more damage as it sits there.

Landfill has been the default option for decades simply because it’s easy, we didn’t understand the repercussions, and the other methods require much more work to undertake. However, with landfills being convenient and incredibly out of sight, it’s hard to get the public’s attention on the severity of this solution, which by the way contributes to nearly 3% of global greenhouse gases.

Composting Releases Gases

Composting food is one of the better options when food has spoiled and nothing else can be done with it. However it isn’t an environmentally neutral act: as the food decays in a compost bin, it emits several greenhouse gases, notably methane and CO2.  While there are definitely benefits to composting (compared to landfilling), it should not be the first thing we try to do when it comes to food waste.

Biofuel Needs To Be Transported, A Lot

Biofuel is a complex topic, as there are several different kinds, and different kinds of produce are more (or less) suitable for each kind of biofuel. Different refining methods are needed for different types of produce, and how well the produce can be converted into ethanol largely depends on its sugar/starch content. Even if a refining plant that normally deals with wheat (70% starch) could be easily retooled to deal with sweet potatoes (19% starch), the process would be massively less efficient.

Once the produce is converted into ethanol (and pulp), that all has to be transported again. Because ethanol enthusiastically absorbs water from the atmosphere (and is thus diluted), it can’t be transported by efficient pipes but must be transported by vehicle in sealed containers. This brings all the issues of transportation back in for a second round. Moreover, the physical pulp that remains of the produce will still need to be processed to be useful.

The bottom line here is that we’ve spent a whole bunch of resources to produce food, and now we have to spend a whole bunch more to break it down into other resources. This seems like an expensive diversion when the food could just simply be provided to people who need it.

What About Animal Feed?

It seems pretty intuitive that bringing this excess food to animals as feed should be an easy solution, and it mostly is. Feeding food waste to animals that would then in turn be consumed by humans is a great option but there are significant losses. For example, the protein efficiency of pork meat production is 9%. This means that if a pig is fed waste produce, 9% of the protein in the feed would be effectively converted to animal product; the remaining 91% would be lost. Meanwhile that produce can be directly provided to humans for an immediate benefit.

Food Grown For People Should Feed People

It seems pretty intuitive that if we’re expending all of these resources to produce food for human consumption, then perhaps the ideal use of it is… human consumption. Of all the options listed so far, this is the one that requires the least additional processing, the least additional energy, and thus the least additional greenhouse gas emissions.

There’s no shortage of food insecurity, even just within Canada (1 in 8 households in Canada was food insecure in 2018), so rather than trying to find a way to reprocess this food into other food or even non-food, it seems like the best approach would be to simply put it into the hands of the hungry.

Reduce Surplus Food Production

Finally, the absolute best way to avoid needing to reprocess excess food is to simply produce precisely the amount of food that’s needed and no more. As exact a science that agronomy has become, there will always be a degree of variability in our food production systems.

Ideally, our goal is to minimise surplus as much as possible. The main issue with this option is that the more narrow the sliver of surplus we have, the more vulnerable to environmental shifts we become: i.e. drought, hurricanes, fires. All of these increase the likelihood that we end up with a food shortage and starve the poor and disadvantaged.

So What’s The Best Option?

With any sustainability issue, the solution is to always have a mix of solutions. Currently, a significant amount of food doesn’t make it off the farms, so there’s plenty of surplus to try to cut down on. While we’re working on cutting down on that surplus we can find ways to get it into the hands (and mouths!) of the people that need it most. For food waste that we simply can’t rescue (because it is inedible), using it for animal feed or compost is a good last resort.

The bottom line is that our best chances at achieving a circular food system is to use the right tool for the right job. ‘Surplus’ food needs to be part of the whole food supply process, and not merely left as an afterthought. If we all work together, this is a very solvable problem.

Article written by:

Brian Lynchehaun, Content Writer

Brian has long been interested in practical solutions to a variety of social justice issues, at the systemic level. With a BA in philosophy he is looking at everything with an interconnected macro lens.