How food insecurity and food waste are connected

The focus needs to shift from increasing food production in supporting local food systems for food sustainability, experts say

Experts say the focus needs to be on supporting our local food systems. (Unsplash/Alexandr Podvalny)

Experts say the focus needs to be on supporting our local food systems. (Unsplash/Alexandr Podvalny)

With files from Abby Luciano 

Canada’s 2022 Food Price Report predicts the highest increase in the last 12 years, with an overall food price increase by five to seven per cent. 

The most significant increases are predicted for dairy and restaurants at six to eight per cent, and bakery and vegetables at five to seven per cent. Overall, a family of four can expect to see an increase of up to $966 per year spent on food. 

In 2021, Canada’s food supply chain was disrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic with mandated lockdowns from public health authorities. The report notes that the inflation rate was driven high by oil, housing, and rising food costs, and the food supply chain struggled through high transportation costs and labour shortages. It also notes drought conditions and wildfires also contributed to this year’s food price increases. 

“In 2022, we expect to feel the continued effect of COVID-19, but to what extent is still uncertain,” reads the report. 

Tammara Soma, assistant professor at the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University and director of research at the Food Systems Lab, was a guest speaker for an online community conversation about food insecurity and waste management. 

“I don’t want us to give up and to accept the current state of our food systems, where some people have access and the ability to choose in a dignified manner, while others often have to rely on … donations,” Soma said. 

At the event, Soma discussed the complexity of solutions to address foodways and the importance of supporting people’s right to food.  

“Few solutions for hunger actually address root causes, and most treat the poor like food waste infrastructure,” Soma says in a follow up interview with The Runner

“Supermarkets or retailers or companies are businesses that will always have surplus amounts that would otherwise be wasted, and you have that to source food banks or charities to feed the poor.” 

Soma says this type of practice could be disrupted again like it was due to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly with shortages and future hoarding, because we rely on the “same old solutions.” 

“This idea that we just kind of accept that hunger should just be solved by food, especially unwanted food, is something that is really problematic and needs to be questioned,” she says. 

Naomi Roberts, research associate at the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems (ISFS) at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, says a lot of the challenges we see in the food system are persistent and have existed for a long time. 

“Generally, part of the sustainability of a system is you want to create a closed loop,” she says. 

“We create a lot of conditions that promote food waste, or facilitate food waste, we have a supply chain that’s all about getting things just right for consumer benefit but also for profitability, and that creates a lot more waste in the process,” Roberts says. 

“[It’s] a two tiered system. One tier where people choose what they buy, what they eat … and then there’s the other tier where the poor or low income people get access to whatever is unwanted in the market, whatever is donated,” Soma says. 

She adds that this process does not take religious needs into account either. 

“When we think about food insecurity, it can’t just be solved with food focused solutions, which includes addressing housing … or a different taxation system that focuses on targeting the wealthy and those not paying the full share of taxes, instead of squeezing the middle and lower income classes even more.” 

In 2019, the Government of British Columbia created a Food Security Task Force which was mandated to provide recommendations on applying agri-technology to enhance food productivity, economic sustainability, and support CleanBC objectives. The Task Force released its report in 2020, with recommendations for an agri-tech approach to domestic food production. 

The ISFS felt technology should not be viewed as a “silver bullet” for the food system, according to their website, and released a response to the Task Force’s report. 

“We felt that it positioned agricultural technologies as the silver bullet solution to a lot of very complex challenges in which it could never be silver bullet solutions,” she says. 

“There is disproportionate emphasis on technological innovation, particularly highly engineered technologies, as being a [solution] for complex issues.” 

The Task Force’s report overlooked situations where technological fixes have exacerbated climate issues, adaptation, mitigation, and local food availability. 

“We have an agriculture industry that’s dependent on fossil fuels in the midst of our climate crisis — the food system is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, but it’s also one of the most vulnerable systems to climatic changes,” Roberts says. 

“Beyond food waste contributing to greenhouse gas emissions is … decomposing food waste, when it’s piled up in these large dump sites can actually be fatal,” Soma said at the event. 

She said that when the waste decomposes in the landfill, it generates greenhouse gases and can create landfill fires. 

“In Indonesia, February 2005, 143 people were killed caught in a landfill slide caused by a methane explosion. Many killed were children, waste pickers, who were food insecure and would get their food from the landfill,” Soma said. 

She emphasized that this is why the issue matters. 

“Not just because it’s convenient or inconvenient, not just for environmental reasons, but because [food waste] is a ticking time bomb,” she said. 

“Technological interventions are [not] considering things like equity and some of the systemic reasons why we’re having the challenges that we’re having,” Roberts says. 

The ISFS’s response calls for better protection of farmland to ensure its use for soil-based agriculture to maintain B.C.’s food production capacity through several actions including improving access to credit and capital for new entrant farmers and farm property tax relief. 

Their response also suggests supporting farmers to “engage in regenerative, ecologically based farming practices” by supporting development of technologies that facilitate adaptations in soil-based agriculture, such as improved water management and reduced energy use. 

In addition, they suggest the province will help develop and implement renewable energy technology in agriculture to reduce energy dependency, and support applied research to advance regenerative, ecologically-based, resilient farming, and food systems. 

“There’s a lot of complexity and a lot of history with agriculture and technology that we felt was obscured in that report, and it painted a picture that perhaps if taken at face value will perpetuate a lot of some mistakes that have been made in the past with agrotech,” Roberts says. 

The ISFS’s response also calls for support for training of the next generation of farmers and expansion of recognized non-traditional agricultural technical training programs. 

“There’s a lot of people talking about the erosion of the viability of farming, the loss of agricultural land to other competing uses, the aging of farmers, and who is going to take over the next generation of farmers,” Roberts says. 

“We talk a lot about crises in terms of the pandemic because it shone a light on [many] system challenges, but those challenges had persisted before the pandemic and perhaps are more acutely felt during the pandemic and are indicative of larger trends.” 

Soma says food security is also food sovereignty. One way we can change our relationship with food is to talk more about food sovereignty so people can be self-sufficient to grow their own food locally instead of relying on exports and imports. She says we currently rely on a global supply chain, and with a global conflict, such as the ongoing one between Russia and Ukraine, it impacts everyone. 

“It’s important for us to look into strengthening local food system resiliency, so that we are self-sufficient and secure,” she says. “It doesn’t mean we can’t import anything or do global trade, it just means we need to invest more in our local agricultural system.” 

“The future of food security is food sovereignty, and the right to food where it’s not seen as a commodity for profit making, but seen as something we can share as a common right.” 

“My hope is … we can figure out how to feed ourselves without compromising the ability of other species to live and other generations to do so as well,” Roberts says. 

“The last 60 or 70 years it’s been about producing more, increasing production. We have enough food on the planet to feed everyone on the planet, and yet food insecurity still persists because it’s a question of access,” she says. 

Roberts says we must think about equity and the distribution and our relationships with food and with each other, otherwise food insecurity will continue. 

“It’s about shifting away from this focus on production and increasing production and increasing profitability, and then assuming that once we do that the rest will sort itself out,” she says. 

As we move forward navigating the future towards food sovereignty, Soma says the players in the food system need to change. 

“We have a lot of corporate concentration, in agriculture, retail, food and beverage manufacturing, and that all needs to change because the corporate concentration means that it’s really a monopoly,” she says. 

“We need to shake up that concentration and really diversify, and allow more players so that we can have better options.” 

“I hope in future generations that we’re able to shift the focus that food is about feeding people, it’s about culture, it’s about connection, it’s about stewardship, and remove this focus that we have on increasing production,” Roberts says.