Waste Not, Want Not: Ensuring the Future of Food Security

Denna Berg

Food production is extensive. It requires large portions of land and high levels of water, energy, pesticide, fertilizer, and soil. It’s a major contributor to the economy, but is also rather tricky, as it relies on the least controllable input–the weather. Agricultural regions are now facing even greater challenges due to sporadic shifts caused by climate change. The realities of climate change are increasingly evident as it is beginning to seriously impact global food security and consumer choice. 

Napa Valley, California, is currently facing a historic drought, which is predicted to reduce this season’s yield of grapes. The region primarily relies on rainwater and underground aquifers to irrigate crops. If late winter or spring precipitation does not occur, the aquifer levels will decline, resulting in a smaller crop for 2014. 

Jennifer Putnam, the executive director of Napa Valley Grapegrowers, recently told the National Post that it is too early to tell if the extended dry season will impact the prices of Napa wine, as the rains could still come. But she acknowledges the adjustment farmers have had to make this season in order to maximize their yields. Farmers have reported that vines are ripening early and have had to become more conservative with their irrigation. They also have had to strategically plant less than usual due to the circumstances. Usually vineyards grow smaller plants in between the vines to reduce the threats of erosion; however, this practice was not done this for this season. 

Grapes are not the only crop reflecting the impacts of climate change on food production. In the beginning of March, there was fear of a “Guacapocalpyse” after rumors that the fast food chain, Chipotle, would remove avocado from its menu. The rumor was rooted in a statement made by the chain’s spokesperson that explained that due to climate change and other factors, price and choice of ingredients may be impacted.

Although it was described as “nothing more than [a] routine and required ‘risk factor’ disclosure,” Chipotle’s customers and avocado fans alike responded in panic. The story of the potential “Guacapocalpyse” spread like wild-fire through social media outlets, requiring the chain to respond to the frenzy. Chipotle announced that it wants to be ready for any other food-security-related issues stemming from climate change, and will not have its customers foot the bill as a result. Similar to the Napa Valley vineyards, the changing climate has already put pressure on key ingredients; Chipotle’s spokesperson stated that three years ago, avocado prices increased dramatically, but the company was prepared. 

While these food shortages and price increases have started to cause a buzz about global food security, a recent study by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization has found that one of the most important ways to address these problems is by reducing food waste. Batali and Bastianich Hospitality Group (B&BHG) are working on innovative technologies that will reduce food waste. 

Aside from offering reasonably sized portions, the option for guests to take home leftovers, and not preparing large batches of food in advance, B&BHG’s restaurants have taken creative measures to lessen their food footprint. While uneaten food is inevitable, there can be more efficient ways of procuring and utilizing produce. 

Restaurants managed by the Group must scale and record critical information about each plate prior to throwing it out. They utilize a “Lean Path” Scale, which collects the weight, food time, estimated costs, and reasons for disposal. This maps out the consumption patterns of their clients and invites the restaurants to re-evaluate different menu choices. B&BHG’s restaurants also use another software program, MintScraps. Akin to the Scale, MintScraps tracks the overall waste production of the restaurant by following trash, recycling, and compost bags. MintScraps also provides an easy platform to post leftovers for local food banks, which not only benefits the community but allows the restaurants to receive tax deductions. Both of these software programs increase the profits of the restaurants that utilize them, and will ensure that customers will not have to pay more for a meal out. 

It is clear through this example that there are many areas where the food industry can help reduce consumer demand and waste. A UN report outlined, for example, how reducing food waste by 15% annually in the U.S. would create a surplus of food enough to feed 25 million people globally. This reduction would also alleviate social issues due to the pressure that food production has on the environment from its reliance on water, energy, and other inputs. 

Furthermore, experts predict that over the next 40 years, food production will have to double to ensure food security.  This prediction, however, has been contested, as it has been argued that this conservative estimation has not taken into consideration food waste. If this is included, the stark reality is that food production will have to triple. This will put heavy pressures on arable land and needed resources, resulting in the entire world having to re-think our existing agricultural industries. 

With this in mind, policies addressing food security should perhaps not begin at the production level, but rather with the end result. Investment in innovative technologies should be seriously examined as an avenue for Canada’s future in food production. 

Denna Berg is a Master of Public Policy Candidate for 2015 at the University of Toronto and a passionate environmentalist. With a degree in Environmental Policy and Procedures, she hopes to become an active advocate for the environmental movement in Canada. Her current projects include: consulting for Sierra Youth Coalition’s Campus Food Systems Project; working as a freelance writer on environmental issues; and actively partaking in the University of Toronto Environmental Action Group. 

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