Our global food system discards 46 million tonnes of fish each year. Why?
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From the moment a fisher lands a fish to the moment that fish lands on your plate, 27 percent of it will disappear. Consider the Atlantic salmon you ate for dinner last night—say, 300 grams. Then lop off more than a quarter of it. Now consider what would happen if we piled up your discards and mine, along with all the other fish that disappear from the global food system in a given year. Imagine we piled up all those discards—all 46 million tonnes of them—in one very smelly spot. They would fill one of the world’s largest landfills, which (incidentally) is not located in China or India, but hides in plain sight just outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. Or let me put it another way: it would take about six years to pile up enough rotting seafood to outweigh all the adults in the world.
Just imagine the stink.
It may surprise you, then, to learn that the Seafood Expo North America in Boston, Massachusetts, the largest gathering of the seafood industry in North America, does not stink. Not really. It smells of cleaned carpet and newly printed brochures and freshly scrubbed businesspeople, of men in ironed shirts and women with flat-ironed hair.
On a chilly day in March 2016, I talked my way into attending the three-day event. Attendance at the seafood expo is about the same as the population of an average American town or a little smaller than the recently retired leafcutter ant colony at the Insectarium in Montreal, Quebec, only much more diverse. Around 22,000 people come from 50 countries to buy, sell, and market every consumable marine product imaginable.
The year 2016 was a good year to be in the fish business, but maybe not such a good year to be a fish. World fish production—capture fisheries and aquaculture combined—reached an all-time high, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO): 171 million tonnes. But our appetite is likely to keep growing: apparent fish consumption has grown at double the human birth rate since 1961. In 2016, this meant we harvested 20.3 kilograms of fish for every human being, about half of it from wild stocks.
For a casual observer walking the aisles at the seafood expo, the overwhelming impression was one of overabundance. There were tins of caviar on ice and saturated photographs of fishermen in brightly colored survival suits holding silvery salmon. Oyster bars with shells in every shape and size. Out of 30 or so sessions at this major industry event, not one explicitly tackled the problem of seafood loss and waste. Instead, a parade of speakers and panelists attempted to inspire conference-goers with talks that could have been addressed to any enterprise keen to wax and multiply their sales: “Credibility is Everything—Creating Influential Brands” and “Cut Through the Clutter—Real Ways to Engage Your Customer.” Others played directly to the fish crowd, exploring the regulation of aquaculture drugs, seafood fraud, and traceability in a system not known for transparency.
It’s possible that waste came up briefly in a session and I didn’t notice, perhaps in the keynote about corporate social responsibility or in “The Future of the Global Seafood Industry on a Changing Planet.” More likely, it remained the leviathan in the room: the uncomfortable fact we knew but did not want to address. As the event drew to a close, exhibitors cleared out the display cases, dumping their food samples into large dumpsters that were then quietly wheeled away.
Waste is an issue throughout the global food chain. Roughly one-third of our food supply—about 1.3 billion tonnes—gets wasted every year. A European or North American consumer may waste up to 115 kilograms per year, 10 times more than their counterpart in sub-Saharan Africa or south and Southeast Asia. But the problem is especially egregious in the seafood category, where nearly a third of global stocks are overfished. Wasting food—especially fish—appears to be an inefficiency our species cannot afford to keep up.
When the United Nations was first established in 1945, it included a reduction of food loss in FAO’s mandate. A number of speakers at the first World Food Conference, held in 1974, suggested that tackling post-harvest loss could help solve world hunger. One resolution exhorted countries to reduce food waste to a minimum and to “ensure the rational utilization of fisheries resources.” The conference even set a target: reduce loss by 50 percent by 1985. Over the next decade or so, technical fixes were proposed and then ignored. A different approach was apparently needed. So was better accounting: there is no record of the progress that was made toward this target.
We’re still chasing that target. In 2016, FAO once again called on nations to halve food waste and reduce food loss by 2030. It sees reducing food waste as key to feeding the 10 billion people who will inhabit this planet by 2050. The European Union and the United States set themselves 50 percent food waste reduction targets by 2030. The National Zero Waste Council, which unites Canada’s six largest metropolitan governments with leaders in business and policy, has been urging the federal government to follow suit. In March, the federal government’s 2019 budget finally earmarked CAD $20-million to develop a food waste reduction plan.
It seems like an easy sell. Who wants to waste food? People feel guiltier about wasting food than they do about wasting pretty much any other thing, perhaps alive to the fact that there are many people in the world who do not have enough to eat. Most agree it is undesirable, even immoral, to waste food no matter what their political stripes or socioeconomic status.
And yet. As we busily agree with each other, our discards continue to pile up.
In January 2019, The Avoidable Crisis of Food Waste announced that more than half the food in the Canadian system was disappearing. Funded by the Walmart Foundation, the report was conducted by Value Chain Management International (VCMI), a food industry consulting firm, and Second Harvest, Canada’s largest food recovery organization, which redistributes 6.3 million kilograms of food to people in need each year in the Greater Toronto Area and recently expanded to British Columbia.
Experts generally distinguish between two types of disappearance in the system: food loss and food waste. Food loss happens between harvest, processing, manufacturing, and distribution, all the way up to but not including what happens at retail. When retailers and consumers discard food, experts consider this food waste.
Martin Gooch, VCMI’s CEO, has been analyzing food disappearance since the late 1990s. He quickly identified its reduction as an opportunity for his clients (who range from national grocery giants and international food companies to producers such as Nova Scotia’s lobster fisheries) to increase efficiency and profitability. The phenomenon is so invisible that many of Gooch’s clients didn’t even know the cost of what they were losing: they hadn’t calculated how many more items they would need to sell to recoup the cost of items that were lost or wasted. A 2010 VCMI paper concluded that avoidable waste increased the cost of food by 10 percent or more.
Gooch kept digging. A 2014 VCMI report suggested that Canadians were wasting $31-billion worth of food each year. The 2019 report suggests the number could be closer to $50-billion. We’re not necessarily wasting more food than we were in 2014. VCMI is also getting better at identifying and measuring the waste.
Disappearance happens at every link in the global seafood chain. It begins on boats with fishers who may waste half their catch because of the technology they use: bottom trawlers are notoriously destructive and undiscriminating in what they haul up; by-catch is discarded. Government regulations are another challenge: they sometimes encourage fishers to throw dead or dying creatures back into the sea because they’ve reached their quota or caught the wrong species or the wrong size of fish. And then there are the economic factors: markets value and pay more for certain species. If space on a boat is at a premium, fishers will toss less valuable creatures to make room for more valuable ones.
In a country like Canada, though, most food disappearance is driven by the ways in which retailers, consumers, and the hospitality industry interact with one another. Together, they are responsible for nearly half the food that disappears: a staggering $23-billion worth.
This was not always so. Food waste per capita rose 40 percent in Canada between 1961 and 2009. Moreover, it outpaced increases in the food supply.
While we can agree that food waste is a problem, most of us think it is a problem created by someone else: in one study, 72 percent of respondents thought they bought just the right amount of groceries. Yet the average Canadian household throws out a third of its food. This remains true for the seafood category, with a caveat: since about half of our fish consumption takes place in restaurants, so does half our fish waste.
A lot of attention in the media and even in public policy focuses on the consumer: educate people how to buy better, store better, and cook better, and maybe we can solve this problem. But this is overly simplistic.
Roderick MacRae, a food policy analyst at York University in Toronto, Ontario, says too many reports about disappearance focus on the “individual responsibility model” rather than on the structure of the food system, which often serves the needs of the companies that want to sell us more and more food. The basic problem is this: companies want to increase sales but consumers can only consume a finite number of calories in a day. So if food companies are successful in their goal of selling more, consumers will either have to eat more than their bodies need or throw away more food.
Processors design packaging to sell more product and encourage us to overbuy—they have little incentive to design packaging that reduces food waste. A megasized container of hummus spoils just as quickly as a smaller tub. Buying six heads of lettuce from Costco seems like a good deal—until you throw out most of them a few weeks later. Moreover, the way things are packaged often makes it difficult to dispose of rotting food in an ecologically sound manner: the rising popularity of clamshell containers, for example, means that foods that could have gone to compost or animal feed may instead go to landfill because distributors and retailers would have to pay someone to remove the plastic. Meanwhile, pricing schemes encourage consumers to buy more than they need, making it cheaper to buy the larger bag of shrimp or two packages for the price of one. You can guess what might happen to the second bag.
Restaurant menus also sell abundance: they offer us the amount we think we want to eat (or what looks like a good deal), rather than what we actually need. Red Lobster’s ultimate feast plate delivers 1,270 to 1,570 calories, depending on how much turf you want with your surf. This is more than two-thirds the daily requirement for an adult with a desk job who doesn’t go to the gym.
Retailers, says MacRae, are at the heart of the problem. The Canadian government only minimally regulates them. We don’t have a lot of public law interventions around retail, he explains, just broad rules around waste management, labeling, and food safety. The reasons for this can be traced all the way back to the British North America Act, which forms the basis of Canada’s constitution. In Canada, the federal government has authority over criminal law. So federal regulations tend to be written to combat fraud in the food system, he says, rather than to promote environmental, health, or social justice issues.
Retailers also have a lot of economic clout: they can look at a shipment, find something they don’t like on a pallet, and reject the entire load. “The food system is riddled with market failure,” says MacRae.
Jim McIsaac, executive director of the T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation, a BC nonprofit that protects fish and fish habitat, believes that handling and storage is one of the greatest challenges specific to seafood, given how perishable it is. (Before joining the foundation, McIsaac worked in the fishing industry for 20 years. He has also acted as a consultant to VCMI.) This is especially true of seafood produced and harvested in parts of the world with less sophisticated infrastructure. Some 50 percent of seafood loss in developing countries may happen on the wharf and in transit. Given how global trade is, and the fact that Canada imported $3.5-billion worth of seafood in 2015, those losses are our losses, too.
Date labeling, another problem that could be addressed by regulation, is widely misunderstood, leading retailers to refuse products if they deem the shelf life too short. There is nothing scientific or legally binding about a best before date: it’s simply the day when an unopened package of food may begin to lose freshness, taste, nutritional value, or any other qualities claimed by a manufacturer. Many consumers avoid and reject items approaching their best before date, even when they are still perfectly safe to consume. (Best before dates are not to be confused with expiry dates, which have strict compositional and nutritional specifications but only apply to foods like infant formula and meal replacements.) Stores often remove items well in advance of these dates to protect an image of carrying only the freshest products.
The bottom line is that it is sometimes cheaper and easier to waste food in the current system than to find a use for it. Sending food to a landfill seems more convenient than donating it to a recovery organization like Second Harvest or even finding a farmer who can use it as feed or fertilizer.
The people who do find a way to repurpose food waste are usually motivated by ethical rather than economic or regulatory reasons. Timen Ho, who heads up Daily Seafood, a Toronto-based distributor, says his company used to dump all its seafood waste in the garbage, until he decided to find a use for it. Now they send fish heads and bellies to supermarkets and restaurants—sometimes for free—to make stock. Offal goes to a company that processes it for fertilizer. Other waste goes to a pet food company. Daily Seafood collects only a nominal fee along the way, just enough to cover its costs for packaging, labor, and transportation. That’s a problem: if there is no economic or regulatory incentive to reduce waste, corporate programs like these usually depend on the goodwill of whoever is implementing them. They disappear when that person retires or moves on.
A few months ago, I participated in a workshop about permaculture at the University of Toronto. The purpose of the workshop was not to learn gardening techniques (though I did learn a few), but to think about how the principles of permaculture might also apply to larger social and cultural systems. Practitioners of permaculture try to cycle resources and energy, mimicking a healthy, stable ecosystem. For them, waste is simply an output that hasn’t found a use yet. Often, it becomes a form of pollution.
The more I think about food waste, the more I am convinced that it is a symptom of an unstable, unhealthy system. In a stable ecosystem, waste doesn’t exist. Everything finds another use: when trees die, they become homes for fungi and insects and provide nutrients for future trees. In the ocean, marine detritus forms the basis of the ocean systems that feed us and allow us to breathe.
When we take a thing out of its ecosystem, and ship it halfway across the world, we need to find a way for it to join a new system, where it can find a new use. Lobstermen on the east coast had famously fertile gardens because of the lobster “waste” they composted on top. What kind of a society sends a valuable fertilizer to landfill? Why is it cheaper to bury fish nowhere instead of boosting our soil and our food growing capacity?
“To waste food is disrespectful of how we hold our relationship with the Earth,” says Ralph Martin, a sustainable agriculture expert at the University of Guelph in Ontario. Martin balks at the term “food waste,” admonishing us that food waste is not a thing in itself. There is only wasted food: the food we have chosen, consciously or not, to waste. To waste food, he says, is to waste all the inputs that went into the system that produced it: when we throw away 46 million tonnes of fish, we are also throwing away the water, the energy, the labor, and the money that went into producing it. Most worrisome of all, we are wasting our future ability to feed ourselves from a dwindling resource.
There are exceptions to this problematic ethos. Sea Soil, a composting facility in British Columbia, makes fertilizer from seafood waste. In Maine, you can buy lobster compost. Enterprising customers collect their own shells from chains like Red Lobster. Several programs in the United States return oyster shells back to the sea to build up oyster beds for the next generation of bivalves. The benefit extends beyond oyster farms. The reefs act as breakwaters for coasts in real danger of eroding.
My visit to the Boston seafood expo made two things clear: one, that human beings are experts at ignoring the things we do not want to see, and two, that we are amazingly adept at building new systems.
Seafood is one of the world’s most globalized commodities. Think of what a logistical achievement this is—consumers can find highly perishable food from all over the world in almost any corner of a wealthier country.
Aquaculture, which was all but nonexistent on a commercial scale in 1950, recently surpassed wild fisheries as the main source of seafood for human consumption. Whether or not this takes pressure off wild stocks is debatable, but the logistical achievement of building up a major new food source points to our capacity for reinvention.
Plenty of tech ventures and start-ups are also working to improve the system. Seafood IQ, an Icelandic seafood tech venture housed in Reykjavik’s “Silicon Valley for the seafood industry” is developing a sophisticated digital tracker that includes real-time temperature monitoring and encrypted background information for each box of fish as it moves through the global food chain. It promises to reduce loss and increase efficiency. Wasteless, an Israeli start-up, recently raised $2.6-million to expand its team and further develop a pricing model that employs machine learning principles to adjust grocery prices as they approach their expiration date.
This is progress.
But progress alone will not save us, as the participants of the 1974 World Food Conference realized when countries failed to adopt technical fixes and the global community failed to reach its goal of halving global food waste by 1985. A more fundamental shift is required.
Many of the drivers of food waste begin with the fact that we do not value our food enough. We are conditioned to want more and to pay as little for things as we can. But human beings are also amazingly adept at survival. We invent and we problem-solve and we can shift our perspectives. We’ve gone from thinking the world was flat to agreeing (mostly) that the world is a sphere. We went from thinking the sun orbited the Earth to realizing that the Earth orbited the sun. Seeing a photograph of Earth from space made many of us realize how fragile the planet was. It began to change the way we thought of ourselves in relation to the world around us.
Our species may be exceptional in its ability to disrupt and destroy our planet’s ecosystems, but this unexceptional fact remains: our survival depends on them. How we maintain those systems—i.e. how we strive to keep them stable—is, in the case of global food waste and loss, the $990-billion question. At stake is not only the 1.3 billion tonnes of food waste we produce every year, or the greenhouse gas emissions that would rank third in the world if global food waste were its own country: it’s our very existence.
What’s needed now is another shift. Instead of spending most of our energy building new systems, we need to find a way to maintain the systems that already exist. We need to find a way to make them stable. Traditional cultures around the world know this.
The ideal in many traditional communities is stability not progress. Systems will always endure disruption and change, but when they do, the goal in a traditional culture is a return to equilibrium.
The success of this approach is measured by the fact that an Indigenous culture has persisted in Australia for more than 60,000 years. By contrast, the great experiment of the Industrial Revolution is only a few centuries old. A measure of its instability is the waste—in the form of greenhouse gases—that it continues to generate.
Producing food without waste—or at least with much less waste—requires skills. More than that, it requires a shift in values and awareness. It requires a willingness to mobilize.
The task is daunting, like so many of the environmental challenges today, but not without precedent. Martin dreams of Canada one day introducing a countrywide curriculum from kindergarten to grade 12 that would promote food awareness. In the Second World War, Canadians rallied around a common cause. They planted victory gardens and rationed food. Thousands of regulatory interventions controlled allocations, infringing on what is now seen as a sanctity of choice. But what if we decided to put the common good above individual choice once again? “We tend to think these things are impossible,” says MacRae. “But we’ve made the right intervention before.”
Stable systems find ways to use the outputs they generate. As Martin might say, there is no such thing as waste—only opportunities that we are wasting.