A host of challenges are straining the global food system and impacting Canadians. In 2022, Canada’s Food Price Report found that the cost of groceries in Canada soared 11 per cent with an anticipated additional seven per cent increase throughout 2023. The situation, while extreme, is only the latest reminder of the long-term unsustainability of the global food system.
Excessive food waste and rising greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are other ongoing challenges that highlight inadequacies in the food system. Nearly 60 per cent of all food in Canada is lost or wasted annually, of which 32 per cent is avoidable, leaving edible products that could be redirected for human consumption (representing a financial loss of $49 billion across the value chain). The food system is also taking a toll on biodiversity and climate: half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture and estimates suggest that 21 to 37 per cent of GHG emissions come from the global food system.
These shortcomings require a more sustainable path forward. A recent report by the CSA Public Policy Centre “Rounding the Corner: Towards a Circular Economy in Canada” examines one course of action: transitioning away from the traditional linear economy, which is predicated on the production and consumption patterns of “take, make, waste,” and moving to a circular economy that minimizes waste. A circular economic strategy can have environmental, economic and social benefits.
A case study: Guelph-Wellington
The region of Guelph-Wellington is one leading example of how adopting circular economy practices can tackle the challenge of food waste. The Smart Cities Office in the City of Guelph and the County of Wellington is developing a regional circular food system to reduce waste, create social value, foster business growth, and address food insecurity.
The program focuses on two circular economy initiatives: Our Food Future and Circular Opportunity Innovation Launchpad (COIL). Our Food Future, funded by Infrastructure Canada, is a whole-of-community program aimed at increasing food access, supporting new circular food businesses and implementing solutions that reduce and redefine waste as a resource. COIL, funded by FedDev Ontario, is an incubator and accelerator that helps businesses develop circular technologies and models and provides funding to scale circular products and services.
In mid-2019, Smart Cities started building the area’s regional circular economy by mapping food waste material flows and determining where circular approaches could reduce waste and generate new social, economic and environmental value. Working with consultants from Canada and the Netherlands, Our Food Future built on the food recovery hierarchy model from the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
The analysis found that the largest cause of organic food waste, particularly for fruits and vegetables, turned out to be inadequate storage and packaging upstream in the food system. It also discovered that the industrial, commercial, and institutional sector is a significant generator of food waste: 75 per cent of the sector’s food waste is sent to landfill, decomposing and releasing methane, a GHG 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
How gleaning food addresses greenhouse gas emissions and food insecurity
Enabling the digital agricultural revolution
These insights helped shape how both Our Food Future, COIL and their many collaborators designed systems-level interventions. For instance, COIL launched two programs to capture and upcycle waste from food processing. These programs, Circulate CoLab and RePurpose Incubator, have resulted in food waste from one factory being turned into new food products by another.
Tofu byproducts, for example, go into noodles and muffins. Onion offcuts are used to create onion concentrate. The concentrate allowed a factory to stop importing it from overseas, improving resiliency in its value chain.
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The transformative and innovative work in Guelph-Wellington has highlighted shortcomings in our linear food system and opportunities to further develop circular practices. Three steps stand out for policymakers:
1) Implement a landfill ban for organics and support recycling innovation.
The most significant action to reduce the amount of food waste is to implement a landfill ban for organics. In 1998, Nova Scotia and P.E.I. took this step, and Vancouver followed suit in 2015. In Vancouver, the ban increased the amount of organic waste turned into compost by nearly 30 per cent in its first year. Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec have committed to regulating organic waste and have implemented reduction action plans.
Innovation funding should also be deployed to develop and refine new materials, like bioplastics (plastics made from renewable resources) to ensure they can be properly managed in industrial composting operations.
2) Build infrastructure to support food rescue and provide support for enterprises to adopt circular practices.
Governments should incentivize businesses to divert their organic waste for composting because it’s not currently a viable option in most parts of the country. Unlike municipal residents, most businesses need to contract with waste haulers independently, which makes getting separate organics collection cumbersome and expensive.
In Guelph-Wellington, the Circular Innovation Council, a non-profit organization focused on supporting the circular economy, and Our Food Future piloted a regional co-operative collection system for the industrial, commercial and institutional sector to lessen the cost of recovering and composting organics. In 2021, 45 organizations participated in the pilot, diverting over 318 tonnes of organic waste (equivalent to the weight of about 100 cars) from landfill and preventing an estimated 413 tonnes of CO2 emissions. Moreover, the pilot taught businesses how to rescue edible food with help from food security organizations as part of their waste management strategy, rescuing more than 38,000 meals throughout 2022.
3) Develop and share food waste data.
Surplus organic materials are easier to upcycle upstream verses downstream in the food system. Despite this, there is no reliable way to capture data on byproducts, coproducts and waste material from food processing and production. Most of this data (location of food manufacturing facilities, for example) rests with either private companies or the federal government and is not accessible.
Canada needs to develop more consistent data on waste and material flow including a platform where it can be shared between regions. More consistent data can help identify opportunities for translating upcycling successes between communities with similar resources. Funding can then be targeted to convert waste into a driver of innovation.
Benefits for other sectors
The benefits of adopting and scaling circular approaches extend past the food system to other sectors of the economy. The first step to adopting widespread circularity is to view every sector as a resource economy: waste is simply a material that has yet to be revalorized.
The best practices from Guelph-Wellington’s regional circular food system are already being applied across other economic sectors and regions. The COIL Zero Waste Economic Transformation Lab is replicating Our Food Future’s successes to address construction and demolition waste – which represents 12 per cent of the solid waste stream generated in Canada. It is convening industry stakeholders to create a shared vision, using data to understand how and why waste is generated, and identify opportunities in the supply chain for interventions to reduce waste and emissions, among others.
The lessons from Guelph-Wellington can act as a roadmap to adopting circular practices in other sectors of the economy to reduce waste and tackle climate change. Municipalities or businesses looking to start their own circular initiatives can look to programs like the Federation of Canadian Municipalities Circular Cities and Regions Initiative, and organizations like Circular Innovation Council, Circular Economy Leadership Canada, and the National Zero Waste Council, which are convening leaders, spreading practices and creating the pathways for all communities to create a circular Canada.