Canadian farmers are stepping up in the war against waste—food waste that is. The average Canadian wastes 79 kilograms of food per year in fridge leftovers and unfinished restaurant portions. More is wasted when grocers toss unpicked produce from shelves even though 5.6 million Canadians go to bed hungry. While food waste occurs across the food chain from transport to distribution, it begins with the farmer.
Food loss is food grown but not harvested or food lost between harvest and sale. While food waste is often attributed to consumers, food loss rests largely with farmers. Ten per cent of food loss happens on Canadian farms, working out to $3.1 billion in losses. While farmers try to avoid food loss through careful tending, they can’t control factors such as inclement weather, pests, market prices, order cancellations, supply and demand, and plant diseases.
COVID-19 Exacerbates Food Loss on the Farm
Farm food loss happens on a good day, let alone during a pandemic. COVID-19 has bounced supply and demand for Canadian grown foods. Closures of hotels and restaurants, and the on-again off-again state of schools, have caused farmers to lose business, resulting in tons of excess food. Border closures have decreased the number of foreign workers available to help harvest. Restrictions in movement also add stress, complicating the transport of what’s grown. All have led to skyrocketing levels of food loss.
Despite hurdles, Canadian farmers are fighting to reduce food loss. Here are some innovative methods they are using to ensure food goes from farm to fork instead of farm to landfill.
Seven Ways Farmers Reduce Food Loss
1) Recycling food for livestock meals – Farming is a recycling engine with livestock at the helm. As ruminants, cattle can absorb nutrition from food that would be wasted. Alberta farm Kasko Cattle Company uses french fries to nourish their herd! Cows have devoured 50,000 tonnes of fries in the past year. In addition to chowing down on the main ingredient of poutine, cattle also eat soybeans and crushed barley left over from making beer.
2) Finding donation channels for food collection and distribution – Organizations have popped up to help Canadian farmers collect and distribute their harvest when they can’t. This is known as gleaning. Groups like the Fraser Valley Gleaners Society harvest what machines have missed and donate it, ensuring food doesn’t go completely to waste. Fruit Snaps, an Okanagan project, collects unwanted orchard fruit and creates snacks distributed to local schools and Indigenous communities.
3) Partnering with organizations to receive food – Did we say livestock are great food recyclers? Loop is a company that helps almost 800 farms in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia turn appropriate, unpurchased grocery store food into livestock feed by connecting them with grocers. Food destined for landfills is instead turned into meals for our four-legged friends.
4) Finding markets for unwanted produce – Blemished produce is usually tossed on farms, but new markets are changing that. Specialized companies such as FoodFund, an ugly produce subscription box, sources imperfect produce from Ontario farmers, helping reduce food loss.
5) Operating farm equipment properly – Combines are complex machines to operate. Farmers must adjust the machine’s settings according to their specific field, crop, and conditions. When operated improperly, combines can leak crop. In Canada, this leakage from combines accounts for in economic losses. By regularly measuring leakage, farmers save more yield and food.
6) Having proper farm infrastructure – Harvested crops need to be properly stored until transport and sale. To keep food in optimal condition, farmers must have adequate storage and drying equipment. Grains, for example, can be overdried or under-dried, so farmers use ventilated storage solutions to ensure crops don’t spoil, controlling temperature, air circulation levels, and humidity of the space.
7) Participating in emerging technology – Agriculture in Canada is constantly improving from technology like artificial intelligence and precision agriculture, which uses sensors, drones, satellite imagery, GPS guidance, and more to gather data about farming conditions. This smart farming gives farmers the information they need to help them react quickly to weeds, insects, and disease that would increase food loss.
Preventing food loss is no easy task. It takes creativity, innovation, and a little technology in the hands of farmers to see progress. However, they’re up to the challenge, and these food loss reduction strategies are only the tip of the iceberg. Leave it to these ingenious producers to pull some other tricks out from under their dusty caps.
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.