Anne Murray: What to eat—a consuming problem

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      I was going to write a complaint against food waste, then my refrigerator broke down and took three days to fix. Sometimes waste is inevitable. Yet the findings of a UN study that one-third of the world’s food is wasted seems really shocking. Corporations are pushing biotechnological solutions for world poverty, while organic food is being criticized as an elitist option. We clearly have problems. So what eating choices can we personally make for a food-rich and ecologically-sustainable global society?

      Food loss during harvesting and processing occurs worldwide, while food waste by retailers and consumers is mainly an issue for industrialized countries. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2011 report Global Food Losses and Food Waste, the average western consumer throws away 100 kilograms of edible food per year, a total of 222 million tonnes a year. This is about 30 percent of all the food purchased, worth US$48.3 billion. Overall, a staggering one billion tonnes of the world’s food is wasted every year!

      Not only is this an issue of wasted food, which could have been more equitably shared among the world’s poor, but it also signals a huge loss of environmental resources, particularly water. As the International Water Management Institute points out: “Tossing food away is like leaving the tap running”. Access to fresh water is increasingly the limiting factor for global agriculture, a deteriorating situation in a warming world. Food waste rotting in landfills generates methane, a potent climate-change gas. Industrial-scale agriculture is responsible for the widespread presence of pesticides in the environment. Populations of Canada’s insect-eating birds, that migrate south for the winter, are suffering rapid declines almost certainly linked to widespread pesticide use and the destruction of forest habitat for agriculture. Much of the interest in organic produce stems from people’s concern about the prevalence of toxic chemicals in their diet.

      There is not a one-size-fits-all solution to food waste. Fridges break down, plans change, we get carried away by the lure of “buy one, get one free” offers. A shortage of time in highly-stressed daily lives; ideological mindsets that abhor the parsimonious, skinflint approach to life; and inherited cultural values all affect our choices regarding food purchases and food waste. Yet the provisioning, preparation and consumption of food is a daily occupation for all of us, in some form or other. Choosing what food we eat is a democratic, independent act: we can affect how our local, regional, and global landscapes develop and what ecological and environmental impacts occur. As consumers, we are powerful, and there is a growing economic impact that cannot be ignored.

      With that in mind, I offer here a few more thoughts on food waste and food choices, as I restock my refrigerator.

      Avoid waste

      Much of the food that gets thrown away is still in its wrappers. Some tips from World Vision Canada on avoiding waste include: think before you shop, store food safely to keep it fresh, prepare leftovers properly, and freeze what you do not plan to eat. Either have a compost bin or use your municipality’s composting services. (This can be a challenge for apartment owners, but not all options are possible for everyone.)

      The question of cost

      There are some parts of Canada where buying fresh fruits and vegetables is a huge expense, but for most of us living in the south, carrots, potatoes, onions, and other staples are cheap. So cheap that it is hardly worth the price for farmers to grow them, and as a result, many hectares of farmland are paved over every year. Eating fresh food in season and preparing it oneself is an inexpensive way of feeding a family. To reduce waste, one can buy higher quality food but less of it. It will be delicious and every scrap will be eaten.

      Eating lower down the food chain

      The rearing of beef cattle is associated with environmental degradation, water demands, and methane emissions. Meat can be expensive, especially if one buys organic. Frances Lappé’s 1971 book Diet for a Small Planet was among the first to advocate eating less meat and more grains, fruits, and vegetables, as a means towards sustainability.

      Organic foods: are they healthier?

      Canadian organic standards are among the best in the world. Sales of organic food in Canada in 2010 were $2.6 billion and growing, and yields are increasing. People choose organic food because of taste preferences and concerns about family health, the treatment of farm animals, or the environment. Pesticides have associations with cancer and conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. The prophylactic use of antibiotics in the meat industry has been linked with the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Although a recent Stanford University meta-analysis found organic food to be no more nutritious than conventional foods, that conclusion is controversial. The analysis looked at a couple of hundred very-short-term studies, and while nutrient levels appeared to be equivalent in conventional and organic foods, pesticide residues were considerably lower in organics. According to the authors, “there have been no long term studies of health outcomes for people consuming organic versus conventionally-produced food.”

      Buy local, support our farmers

      Whether organic or not, most local B.C. farms produce fresh food of high quality. Supporting open field agriculture has a profound effect on the environment in the ecologically important Fraser delta. The farmland south of Vancouver supports millions of migrating and wintering birds, including snow geese from Russia, shorebirds from South America, and ducks from across the Canadian prairies. These birds depend on fields that grow food crops for the rest of the year. When farms are sold for industrial and urban developments, or criss-crossed by truck highways, we not only lose the capacity to grow food locally, but we put at risk whole populations of birds migrating on the Pacific Flyway. Conservation stewardship, such as the winter cover crop programs of the Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust, benefits farmers and birds.

      Grow a garden

      Nothing beats eating super-fresh food grown within steps of one’s kitchen. We need an eco-solution to caterpillars in the cauliflower though.

      Bird-friendly, shade-grown coffee

      Products that we import from other countries have a significant effect on the ecology and sustainability of people’s livelihoods around the world. There are many thoughtful ways to support both wildlife and humans when making choices at the supermarket.

      Anne Murray is a writer and naturalist, and the author of two books on the natural history of Boundary Bay—Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay and A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay—both available at bookstores and from Nature Guides B.C. She blogs at




      Sep 26, 2012 at 5:07am

      These are great suggestions that many Straight readers already follow but very few corporations and institutions follow any of them. As with energy waste and water waste the major culprits are institutions and businesses. Dumpster divers rarely look through household trash for foodstuffs. It is always restaurants, grocery stores and the like. Ever notice the wee small shelf of almost turned produce at your grocery store? Think that's all the bruised onions they had lying around? Discounted ready to toss food used to be a common part of the grocery retail game. Not so any more and the cost of that waste is built into the price of the stuff you're already paying for. One more "thought" to add to the list of things to do is for "consumers" to hold businesses to account for wasting unsold foodstuffs. Just like holding businesses to account for blasting air conditioning onto the sidewalk, leaving lights on through the night and not having low flow dual flush toilets, etc.. Bad corporate citizens don't get my dollar, don't let them get yours (and tell them why.)
      Lastly, the dates stamped on packaged foods are SELL-by or SHELF dates for optimum brand standards, product turnover or "flow" and corporate liability, they are not EAT-by dates. How many cans of beans or such end up in the landfill every day because they couldn't be "effectively capitalized?" Here's a couple of questions for the UN. Is food a precious resource or a just another commodity? If water is a human right, why isn't food? Food for thought ;)

      liz w.

      Sep 26, 2012 at 8:23am

      This is fantastic, anne, and a I hope readers pay attention and follow your suggestions. Your best column yet.
      I'd like to know what Safeway and Thrifty's do with excess food. Does it go to the landfill?
      Everyone should watch inspiring film called "Dive"..shows what can be done with supermarket surplus.

      Bob Branham

      Sep 26, 2012 at 10:25am

      I think you would be very surprised by the number of corporations that are working on the issues noted above and are looking for collaborative partners to increase consumer awareness of the issues. It's easy to lump together and criticize corporations from the outside.

      jeff rubin's favorite alt. weekly

      Sep 26, 2012 at 1:47pm


      1) Do you consider Ree$e'$ Puff$ to be a nutritiou$ breakfa$t for children?

      2) Given the incidence of diabete$ in the U$, how do you $leep at night?

      H Steves

      Sep 26, 2012 at 11:14pm

      I taught a term on the topic at UBC 50 years ago. At that time there was little differentiation between organic and "commercial" agriculture. For centuries frarmers had used crop rotations with legumes in the rotation to produce nitrogen, composting and manuring to provide N,P,K, trace elements and nutrients, cover crops, hand or mechanical weeding to control weeds, and some natural fertilizers and pesticides. As more and more chemical fertilizers and pesticides were used the crop rotations, cover crops, etc. continued at first, then declined to monoculture cropping. With the advent of Roundup there was no need. Simply kill the field and seed again. After 50 years of monoculture it is impossible for food to be as nutritious as food grown "naturally" or organically on well composted and rotated fields. Fields fed nothing but N,P,K for 50 years cannot possibly have the trace elements needed to produce nutritious food. For example, the iron we need for our blood comes from eating meat or from eating plants that absorb it from the soil. Putting animal manures and compost on the soil helps to replenish the iron in the soil. The plant is what it eats from the soil and we are what the plant eats.


      Sep 27, 2012 at 12:32am

      To "Bob Branham"
      Corporations and non-incorporated businesses are not leaders on conservation issues unless the measures they undertake affect their bottom line. Otherwise they would not be businesses worth investing in. I don't think I would be surprised at what they are doing. The job is not to increase consumer awareness of these issues, the job is to increase corporate awareness of these issues. The method is to vote with your dollar for companies that get their sh*t together and fall in line with sound public conservation practices. We lead, you follow. Have some fracking humility.