The First Sixteen is Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s new podcast series that explores the freshest ideas in agriculture and food. Each episode explores a single topic in depth—digging deep into new practices, innovative ideas, and their impacts on the industry. Learn about Canada’s agricultural sector from the people making the breakthroughs and knocking down the barriers! Farmers and foodies, scientists and leaders, and anyone with an eye on the future of the sector—this podcast is for you! A new episode is published each month.
Episode 007 - The opportunity of food waste
Is food waste really an opportunity? Denise Philippe of the National Zero Waste Council believes so. Listen to this discussion where she outlines gaps in our food system and shows us where opportunities exist. As well, learn about the new Food Waste Reduction Challenge.
Denise: We get our heads so wrapped around this notion that we have a problem, we have an issue. It's like, yeah, we do. But I would like to talk about how we've got not just a solution, but we've got a possibility. We've got an opportunity to do better than we've ever done before.
Sara: Welcome back to the First Sixteen. I am Sara Boivin-Chabot.
Kirk: I am Kirk Finken. In this episode, we’re talking about food loss and food waste. It’s complex. And it is also new territory for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
Sara: In terms of scope, it’s global, national and local. It’s in our homes. It’s also a loaded topic.
Kirk: It’s loaded with unused nutrients, yeah. And when it rots in municipal landfills, it’s loaded with and releases methane, which is 25 times more polluting than carbon monoxide.
Sara: I mean it is loaded… emotionally. It’s that guilty feeling we get from watching news reports about food waste. Nobody wants to admit that they are wasting food.
Kirk: Some people are even blasé about it, too. It’s like a sign of power to throw out food. That really bothers me.
Sara: But if we look at it as our first guest looks at it, it can be seen as an opportunity. And we have an important challenge that was launched recently that is a unique way of finding solutions.
Kirk: So, let’s hear from people who are taking the lead on this issue.
Denise: My name is Denise Phillip and I am a senior policy advisor with the National Zero Waste Council. I have been with the council since it’s inception, so about 2012 and I have always worked on the food loss and waste file.
Kirk: Yeah. The National Zero Waste Council started in 2013 as an initiative within Metro Vancouver. Metro Vancouver is a regional level of government. So it's not the city of Vancouver. It's the metropolitan area of Vancouver, which includes twenty-three municipalities and one First Nation.
Sara: Waste management, of course, is a municipal jurisdiction.
Kirk: Right. And some years back, Metro Vancouver was setting out aggressive waste reduction targets and… they quickly realized that they could never meet these targets working alone. Food production, food processing, food packaging, food transport – these are all federal and provincial jurisdictions.
Sara: So, I guess they reached out…
Kirk: To the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, businesses, other levels of governments…
Denise: And we said we have a big waste problem in Canada. We don't even acknowledge that it's a problem, it's huge, it's costing us billions of dollars and it has massive climate implications. We've got to do something about it and we're only going to be effective if we work collaboratively and if we work with people that are outside just our region. That was the birth of the council.
Sara: I can see how Denise Philippe, regional public servant, all of a sudden finds herself at the centre of a national – slash – regional organization.
Kirk: Fast forward to today – the council is a dynamic organization trying to come to grips with some big issues.
Sara: Big issues for sure. In Canada, we waste over half the food that we produce.
Kirk: According to a recent study, we waste 58% of our food.
Sara: We have some gaps in the system. And it is not just little Tommy who is not eating his broccoli.
Kirk: In fact, some experts think consumer waste is just a small slice of that 58%. I asked Denise to identify the gaps and opportunities. She started with the elephant in the room – measuring and monitoring.
Denise: We need to know where we're at to know where we're going. So you need to be able to to measure and monitor what are your current impacts. How much waste are we regenerating? What's it made of? Where is it happening in the supply chain? Who can do something about it? So the measuring and monitoring is attached to a target. So we always talk about a 50 percent reduction by 2030 that's in line with the global protocol, a global target. So we need to measure and monitor, and that's for all representatives in the supply chain. That's food businesses, that's government. So making sure that we're all agreeing on the terms we're using and that we're all measuring and monitoring for we're all measuring, monitoring the same things and for the same end is really fundamental to being able to track any kind of change in the country.
Kirk: Okay. And what about the physical infrastructure of the food system?
Denise: Whether we're getting food from the farm to people or whether we're getting surplus food from retail to charitable outlets, for example, there's a transportation issue and then there's also a storage issue. And often it's a cold storage issue with a hot storage issue. And we don't have really good infrastructure that allows shared common space where we can take food, move it across parts of the country in a way that's efficient and effective and doesn't have a huge climate impact and that the food gets there one piece, it doesn't rot all the way, for example, and that that we've got some sort of central area where we can store it for a period of time that, again, it doesn't go bad, was waiting to be delivered.
Kirk: What about the supply chain itself? Any gaps or issues in that?
Denise: Better relationships between producers, processors, manufacturers and retailers like basically all the way through the supply chain. We really run our food supply chain around volume and get it just in time. Right. So that means I want to plan ahead. I want to lock in to a two-hundred-pound order and it's got to arrive by April. Right. And we know we all have to be more dynamic than that. And the only way to be more dynamic than that is to make sure that we're working locally with those relationships and that we're working throughout a supply chain. So we're leveraging each other, but we're working collaboratively. So if a part of a farmer has a really good year, can we make use of that bumper crop? If a farmer doesn't have a very good year, can we lower expectations, lower or lower our purchases without penalties? Because right now there's often penalties built into the procurement process throughout the supply chain.
Kirk: I guess there is the question of supply and demand too.
Denise: But there's also the transportation of food, so if you spend a lot of time growing food, growing food, growing food, and you don't need it and you don't need it dottiness, you have to grow more food. You know, like if that's the cycle you're in your climate contributions from all the trucks driving around, strawberries that never get in, it's actually huge.
Kirk: And so because the food system is also opportunistic, do you see any opportunistic gaps?
Denise: I think we could do a lot more with innovation in the kind of food that we eat. I'm not talking about anything too weird necessarily, but we need to rethink what we currently consider waste. Spinach that may not be good for a salad can be made into spinach packs that are then thrown into smoothies. That's another common example. Right. And this this is kind of an exciting space because Canada's economy is largely made up of some small to medium sized enterprises. That's really the bulk of our that's our economic engine. And they're characterized by being nimble and innovative. And if we can support SMEs to step into this, like create a food space, I feel like that's a really feel good, positive solution with a good economic return that also reduces food waste.
Kirk: So that is at the production and processing levels that there are gaps. What about other places in the food system?
Denise: And then finally, I want to talk a little bit about household house-hold consumer waste, and that's really about we purchase too much. We impulse buy when we go to a grocery store. How many of us these days make our weekly list like our work at a meal plan out? Right. I'm going to make burritos on Monday, pasta on Wednesdays, and then I buy food that is just for those meals, actually doing a little bit of meal planning. And then how do we store food at home? I think the storage issue is important at home and then anywhere in between farm and home so that we don't lose we don't lose food to improper storage.
Kirk: And that would probably bring us to best-before-dates…
Denise: Before dates are only about peak freshness. They're not a nutrition or a health or safety measure, and there's a lot of public confusion around that. So there are many food items that are that have best before a date applied. And I would say they're applied to move the inventory. They're not applied from a few blocks and waste reduction perspective, nor about really servicing the consumer, except maybe when it comes to to taste.
Sara: There are many layers to this.
Kirk: We could devote a whole episode to each of these gaps.
Sara: And in some cases, the supply chain is global.
Kirk: For sure, and Denise definitely had something to say on that, looking at it from a municipal budget perspective.
Denise: I think we're realizing that we really have to figure out how to shorten our supply chains. And I know that there are some people who are working on this that are suggesting some really interesting solutions. Why would you not do that? We can't afford to spend billions of dollars on dealing with our garbage because we have to put better water treatment systems in place. And we've got a lot of costs coming up. So it just makes good fiscal sense for us to start thinking about how do we manage our waste differently. And then I think is as. As local governments, part of a country that is committed to addressing climate, we have a responsibility to tackling this issue.
Kirk: And other levels of government?
Denise: I would also say that there is a role for the federal government and the provincial governments to kind of come together and work out the harmonization piece. So what are the policies that we want to harmonize? And then how do we set the policy landscape?
Denise: I know a lot of people will say, you know, funding needs to come from federal government or funding needs to come from the provinces. Then sure, we could talk about that. I like to talk about a refresher, but it's not just about funding. I think we need to see leadership at those levels around support for innovation with service. And that is because that is a commitment to a Canadian economy that's going to stay current, that's going to become circular, and that's going to stay globally competitive.
Sara: There’s one area that she hasn’t talked about. What about food waste on the farm?
Kirk: Although she grew up on a small farm in the Fraser Valley in BC, Denise didn’t want to talk about that. It’s just a bit beyond her areas of focus. But she did say that the loss of food on the farm usually just stays on the farm, becomes livestock feed or goes back into the soil.
Sara: It may be a good subject for another episode. I am curious though – has she seen any interesting models in other countries?
Kirk: She did.
Denise: Yeah, and we I take a lot of our cues for the work of the council from other countries and other places, but I don't ever find one model that we can just import. However, that being said, the fact that there is sort of a central body that is trying to aggregate and help companies report out on their measuring, monitoring work is great. We just need to figure out how to better do that here. Really love some of the the initiatives in places like Copenhagen where they have a best before date store. It's actually going to a store and you can go to the store and get everything in. The store has got an expired. You know, if that expired is past its best before date, it can buy food that's a little cheaper, but it's totally nutritious and healthy to consume. We're not doing that in Canada. Often best before dates are being used to move inventory. And then it gets it's either surplus food, but even then, sometimes food that's got a best before date ends up in a landfill.
Kirk: So how do we start dealing with all of these different gaps?
Denise: The innovation challenge that has just come out is like, thank you. That is fantastic. I do want to give a shout out to that innovation challenge is fabulous and it's just what we need. I also think it's great that they're supporting innovative ideas. You don't have to be an SME. You can be a large corporate, you can be another kind of agency that is putting forth an innovative idea. So just continue to spark that that that creativity within the country is, I think, one of the best things that we can do.
Sara: And I know just the person who can speak about the Food Waste Reduction Challenge. Because this is definitely a new way that the government is addressing systematic issues.
Kirk: Who is that?
Mohamed: Hi, everybody, my name is Muhammad Yassine, I am an Impact Canada fellow with the Privy Council office based in Ottawa. I have been working with Agriculture and Agrifood Canada over the past year on the design of the Food Waste Reduction Challenge.
Sara: Hi Mohamed. Thanks for speaking with me. Can you explain the challenge in food waste reduction challenge, what is a challenge?
Mohamed: Sure, so challenge prices are basically competitions that provide rewards to whoever can first or most effectively solve a defined problem. They work really well for complex problems such as food waste, because what they do is that they help expand the pool of problem solvers. And so they work well when the problem is well defined. But the solution to the problem or how to get to a solution are really unknown here. So we've been challenged by this being very successful and incentivizing and driving innovation in several sectors like commercial space, space travel, self-driving cars or even solutions to antibiotic resistance.
Mohamed: And now we hope that challenges will bring new ideas and solutions to solving food loss and waste across the food supply chain.
Sara: The food supply chain is pretty complex. Are there different categories within the challenge to deal with different parts of it?
Mohamed: So as we know, there is no one solution to food waste, so this is why our challenge has four different streams to support as many different solutions across the food supply chain as possible. We have two streams focused on business models. These are for solutions, ready for commercialization and two other streams focused on advancing new technologies. These are for solutions that are still at the lab and at the prototyping and testing phase in each of these two categories. One stream support solution for food waste prevention.
Mohamed: That is making sure that no food waste is generated at any place from farm to consumers. And another stream supports solutions for diversion of food waste. So since we know that some waste is inevitable, we want to support solutions that can create value from food by-products of waste and divert it from landfill.
Sara: What type of organization do you expect to participate in the challenge?
Mohamed: Yes, so we expect innovative and new ideas and solutions to really originate from very different places. So when we designed the challenge, as I said, we made sure to test it with a diverse group of innovators. And we saw we expect ideas to come from places such as new start-ups or even groups within large or bigger companies. Some ideas will come from the food industry, but others will come from other industries like high tech or even parallel industries that had to deal with ways such as textile or pharmaceuticals and other solutions might come from students, academia, the non-profit sector. Really, the challenge is open to all sort of innovators.
Sara: Is this open to a Canadian organization only or can international organizations participate?
Mohamed: So the challenge is open to international innovators, many solutions may come from abroad. What the challenge will do is that it will bring those solutions to be tested and to grow in Canada so that they can benefit Canadian businesses and consumers.
Sara: What sort of questions have you been getting from potential participants since it was launched in November 2020?
Mohamed: So we've been getting a lot of interest for the challenge and most questions have been focused on eligibility.
Mohamed: I guess every everybody working with government is used to a long list of eligibility, but for the challenge, the eligibility is quite broad. So people were surprised and most answers were basically you are eligible.
Sara: And how will your team determine the winners?
Mohamed: So as soon as the application close, the team has around just one week to do a full screening for completeness of application, and that will be a very fast screening. And then the applications are sent to a jury of experts. And we have a very exciting jury from outside the government. And these are big, very famous entrepreneurs, even celebrity chefs, people who work in the nonprofit, industry, academia, etc.
Mohamed: And this jury will assess the application and will meet and make recommendations on who should be selected as winners. And then AFC Agriculture and Agrifood Canada will take that recommendation and select the winners and provide funding.
Mohamed: So the challenges in stages, actually, and that allows us to follow the innovators through the process of development of solution. So the first stage is only the concept. So innovators will only submit their idea and concept and then semi-finalists will be selected. They will move to stage two Western states. Do they need to show initial results of their solution? And they will show these results to the jury. And then finalists will be selected and move to stage three, where they'll have to grow in the market and show bigger results.
Mohamed: And then the grand winner will be selected after stage three.
Kirk: With some of the gaps that Denise Philippe identified, I can see there could be hundreds of excellent solutions.
Sara: I’m sure there are some good solutions already. Maybe some old solutions that can even be improved upon. Did Denise talk about any municipalities or organizations that stand out in their efforts to reduce food waste?
Kirk: For sure. There are some leaders in Canada.
Denise: Certainly Guelph's circular city work is inspiring. They're leading in Canada, and I'd say that qualifies also special in the sense that it has a lot of producers and it's also got a lot of processors right there. So Guelph is really great and it's great that they're being able to work with different players to figure out how they how one company's castoffs are another company's source of material to make into something new that they are they're redefining waste. So that's really great. I'd say that Metro Vancouver has been a leader around this “Love food, hate waste” campaign. We are seeing still that we have an individual province lead in a particular area or another, and other provinces are either not following that lead or they follow it too late. For example, Quebec is doing fabulous work around really advancing a circular economy.
Kirk: What do you mean by the circular economy?
Denise: It means that the resources that we start with stay in circulation for as long as possible. We want to be able to reuse it. We want to take apart something and reassemble that part. And that that also relates to food. So we recently featured spent goods at our zero waste conference. They're taking the cast-off grains from a brewing company and they're taking those grains and making them into bread. Perfectly, normally, all of that would have been even if it went to the compost or a digester. So people are eating those grains in a bread and in a bread form. That's the circular economy.
Kirk: Sara, we’ve drawn a circle around the subject -- identified the gaps in the system, heard about some leading cities and regions. We also heard about the Food Waste Reduction Challenge. But I want to know what is going to happen when we have all those winning solutions.
Sara: Yeah. I was curious to know what will happen with the solutions and winning submissions. I asked Mohamed.
Mohamed: So hopefully the challenge is working as a catalyst to basically help build the ecosystem of solutions in Canada, and what we hope is that we're raising awareness, we're bringing people together and using our convening power to bring them together around this challenge. So what we hope is that some of this financial incentive that the challenge is providing, plus the non-financial aspect of the challenge, such as awareness, bringing people together will have the solutions grow and have a high impact on food waste reduction across Canada.
Sara: Why do you think challenges like this work to solve major social issues?
Mohamed: Challenges, challenges, work to drive innovation because first they're open to a large number of problem solvers, so they bring new people and new players. Second, because they don't focus on financing budgets, but they focus on financing results. So they put all the emphasis on showing results rather than spending money.
Sara: This is a unique way of kick-starting systematic change.
Mohamed: Indeed, this is the first challenge that agriculture and agri-food candidate launches, but we hope it will not be the last.
Kirk: And this is not the last you will hear about the Food Waste Reduction Challenge. We will follow up with an episode in spring 2021 to talk with the winners of the challenge about their solutions.
Sara: I look forward to that.
Kirk: And in the meantime, you know what to do…
Sara: I do. Stop wasting food.
Sara: Try something new.
Kirk: We love hearing from you – farmers, food processors, anyone working in the food sector and system.
Sara: What subjects would you like to hear about on the First Sixteen? Let us know.
If the podcast player does not work in your browser please try this version of Episode 007.