The grocery store shelves are filling up again. You can even buy toilet paper.
After a few of weeks of panic buying and long queues outside grocery stores, it appears that our food system has responded relatively quickly to COVID-19.
But dig a little below the surface and all is far from well.
Globally we waste 1/3 of everything we produce. The way we make food damages soils, pollutes groundwater, contaminates air and fills up landfills, while billions of people go hungry every day.
Wasted food is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases. If food waste was a country it would be just behind China and the US in terms of carbon emissions.
The ingredients in your dinner tonight will have travelled a collective 1,200 km before reaching your plate, through globalized supply chains of dizzying complexity and almost total opacity.
The truth is, our food system is broken and by eating food produced every day by this broken system, we are actually stoking the fires of climate change and creating food insecurity for billions of people across the world.
We are reaching the end of the beginning of the pandemic. It is time to plan for what comes next and we cannot go back to business as usual. It will just accelerate the cycle of destruction.
It is urgent to make three fundamental changes that will help reverse this cycle. These changes are not just the responsibility of governments, but of every company operating in the food industry.
Adopt a more circular approach to food production to eliminate waste in all forms.
One third of our food is wasted. No other industry runs at those levels of waste.
Last year, we carried out assessments on just 1% of Canadian food and beverage manufacturers. We identified an astonishing 9 million kgs of food being wasted annually.
That’s 15 million meals and 32 thousand tonnes of CO2e that could be reduced each year (the equivalent of taking 7,000 cars off the road annually) – from just one percent, of just one part of our food system, just in Canada.
The opportunity and the cost here are staggering. Reducing waste is better for the climate, human health and wellbeing, but it is also good for the bottom line of the industry. That same study showed that firms who implemented solutions to reduce waste saved over a quarter of a million dollars per year.
Create more transparency in our supply chains.
A remarkable 35% of all food products used everyday in North America contain palm oil, which comes primarily from two countries: Indonesia and Malaysia.
Indonesia is one of the most at risk countries from climate change. 40% of its population face high mortality risks in the coming decades.
If Indonesia shutters its borders following a pandemic or climate disaster (unthinkable until recently, but now a real possibility), and palm oil supplies dry up, many food products in our stores here will simply disappear.
Manufacturers need to source ingredients closer to home. Initiatives like IBM’s Food Trust, which leverages blockchain technology to provide transparency from farm to fork, need to be rolled out across the food chain. And we need to start pricing in the damage to the climate that our food and beverage products are creating.
Value the unsung heroes of our food system – the people who grow, make and deliver our food.
COVID-19 has shown that when the people who make or transport our food get sick, our food supply is seriously challenged.
For the first time, we are starting to realize that if you don’t have the people, you don’t have the food.
It’s time to stop paying minimum wage to the men and women who make our food system work. They are some of the most valuable members of our national workforce and they need to be recognized as such.
Keeping the shelves stocked over the last few months has required a deep level of commitment from thousands of men and women at all levels of the food and beverage supply chain. It is now time to turn that same tenacity to fixing our broken food system.
Cher Mereweather, CEO of Provision Coalition Inc., is a Food Industry Sustainability Expert based in Canada
View the original Food in Canada Sustainable Change Column on Page 13 here