Tackling food waste: A recipe for change

Faculty of Law - Common Law Section
Common Law Section
Environmental law

By Common Law

Communication, Faculty of Law

A woman stands in the foreground of a food market. There are trays of fruits and shelves of non-perishable items behind her.
Approximately 1.3 billion tons of food go to waste each year. The economic losses, and the impact of food waste on the environment are problems that we can no longer afford to ignore.

Professor Heather McLeod-Kilmurray, co-director of the Centre for Environmental Law and Global Sustainability at the University of Ottawa, has been at the forefront of addressing sustainable food systems since 2016, back when food law was not yet an established field in Canadian legal studies. She works now to address significant gaps in law and policy relating to the food we consume and the food we don’t, striving to make lawmakers and regular Canadians aware of the importance of sustainable and waste-conscious food systems.  

Food loss and waste are gaining increasing attention domestically and internationally, but as a sign of how far we still have to go, a clear and universally accepted definition of “food waste” is still lacking. Generally, “food loss” refers to food that is lost or that spoils during production or en route to the grocery store, while “food waste” refers to the food that remains unpurchased at the grocery store or that spoils – or at least that is not eaten – after you buy it. All told, the amount of food that never gets eaten really adds up. 

At the federal level, Canada lacks comprehensive legislation addressing food waste. This means we don’t have consistent ways to measure how much food is wasted (or how it is wasted), nor do we have meaningful targets to aim for – targets that might impose certain obligations on food producers and food sellers, or that might give the general population pause before they throw out a slightly brown banana. 

The problem, of course, is more serious than a few items thrown out at home or left behind at a grocery store. Food insecurity in Canada rose significantly during the pandemic. But ramping up food production to address food insecurity fails to get at the root of the problem. Current data suggests that the world produces enough food to fully feed its population. Increased production may solve part of the problem, but it also contributes to more food loss and waste. The effect on the environment of increased production and increased waste is severe. Food waste alone produces an exceptionally high amount of greenhouse gases. 

Grocery store food basket r32 999x666

Professor McLeod-Kilmurray and her colleagues, including the University of Ottawa’ Professor Nathalie Chalifour, Professor Angela Lee of Toronto Metropolitan University and Patricia Galvão-Ferreira of the University of Windsor are trying to change things. For example, alongside NGO Reimagine Agriculture, Professor McLeod-Kilmurray and Professor Galvão-Ferreira have been working with students to survey the landscape of food loss and waste in Canada, examining international practices and developing a database to help track data that can allow us to see the full scope of the problem. They hope to generate policy briefs and even draft legislation to address the issue. 

Professor McLeod-Kilmurray is also taking inspiration from provinces and municipalities that are mobilizing against food waste in a variety of creative ways. Progress is possible, but there is a growing need for federal and provincial governments to coordinate these efforts and to share best practices. Professor McLeod-Kilmurray is currently examining food loss and waste in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Brazil, aiming to provide insights into global food waste reduction strategies. She also works directly with the University of Ottawa, studying how local efforts to address food waste on campus might be expanded to influence larger institutional food providers.  

Food waste is a problem partly due to a lack of awareness. Most of us simply don’t know or care to acknowledge the implications of throwing out a slightly bruised peach, or scouring the dairy section for the tub of yoghurt with the latest expiry date. Professor McLeod-Kilmurray hopes to expose the impacts of these simple choices. The resulting transformation could result in reduced food waste, greater food security, and a significant impact on climate change – a goal we can all share, three meals a day.