A New Idea of Efficiency?
As part of the new Strategy for a Waste Free Ontario, the government is consulting on a discussion paper called Addressing Food and Organic Waste in Ontario. Although the proposal does acknowledge the need to reduce and prevent food waste, the real focus is on reducing how much organic waste ends up in landfills and on the economic and environmental benefits of recovering food and organic wastes as a resource. It is clear that the Ontario government is more concerned with reaping the benefits of re-using organic waste than they are in significantly reducing how much waste we generate.
The Discussion Paper points out that in 2014 “Ontarians generated about 3.6 million tonnes of food and organic waste, of which over 60 percent was sent for disposal, mostly to landfill.” While it is important when measuring food waste to define what qualifies as waste, certainly from a policy perspective, organics in landfills count as waste. This means the value of the food, and the nutrient and energy value that could otherwise be recovered, are lost. Beyond this, in the oxygen poor environment of a landfill organics create methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
The government is proposing to eliminate landfill disposal and instead turn organic wastes into compost or use biodigesters to produce a combination of digestate and biogas. Digestate is used as a soil amendment, and biogas can be refined for use as renewable natural gas.
When we calculate what it means to “waste” something, especially something as vital to human existence as food, is it enough just to recover it at the other end as compost, digestate and biofuels? If we create an economy out of our food waste, will we not then create a future where we encourage rather than discourage food to be treated as cheap and “disposable”?
While I think the government’s goal to prevent organic wastes going to landfill is well justified, I am not convinced it follows that we should create a whole new economy from our waste. This is a well-intentioned but misplaced priority.
Food waste is the dark side of food abundance. Globally we have successfully built our agricultural systems to the point where we enjoy far greater food security than at any other time in history. We can now say that famines occur not because of a global shortage of food, but because of political conflict. True the human population is still increasing, and pressures on farming resources, including arable land and key inputs, are also still increasing. But, perhaps it is time to start looking long-term at what efficiency in our food system could mean in the future.
With our ever-improving technology, will a time come when we measure efficient farm production not based on how much we produce per acre or per input? Instead, efficiency could consider how accurately we produce what is needed in a system that delivers this to the consumer with as little waste as possible all along the way.
One of the benefits of supply management is that it reduces waste by creating a stable market and setting production to meet demand. The principle of coordinating supply and demand could be better applied in other commodity systems as well, with the goal of reducing waste and ensuring farmers are still receiving a fair price for quality food production. Ontario has the technology and entrepreneurial spirit to lead the way in this direction.