Last week, I attended a roundtable discussion on the topic of food waste, one of the great shames of modern life. Every year, 28% of the food produced worldwide is wasted; the land mass needed to grow that amount of food would cover China and Mongolia. Worse still, much of the food we throw away will end up in a landfill rather than as beneficial compost (except in fortunate municipalities where composting is mandated). A whopping 47% of wasted food occurs after purchase, which means we consumers are responsible for the bulk of tossed edible items, some of which are still perfectly safe to eat.

This needs to change.

A growing world population and the agricultural land needed to feed us all means more wilderness lost and trees cut down, more species loss, and more greenhouse gas emissions (industrial agriculture being one of the biggest consumers of precious resources like water and fossil fuels). We simply can’t afford to waste food.

France recently passed tough new regulations demanding that supermarkets waste less, and donate more unsold food to charitable organizations, imposing hefty fines on those quietly and rapidly filling up backdoor dumpsters. Meanwhile, Germany has refused this kind of government intervention, trusting in supermarkets’ and individuals’ ability to police themselves and their willingness to do the right thing.

At our roundtable, we discussed the possibility of similar regulations in Canada, as well as what we as consumers can do to cut down on waste. Most agreed that the large, wholesale model of grocery shopping encourages us to buy food we may not need simply because it’s cheap. We have no control over portion size (one women complained that she can never find just 2 chicken thighs for her single-person household; most meats are packaged in 8-10 unit sizes, minimum).

Shopping for items at stores like Bulk Barn where we choose the amount we need is one answer for purchasing dry goods (this chain happily also now allows customers to bring their own reusable containers and bags to the store).

At an institutional level, we might insist on policies like the one in use at the dining hall at the University of King’s College. The hall manager is proud to tell visitors about Kings’ “no-tray” policy; she found trays encouraged students to pile up several plates’ worth of food from their thrice-daily mealtime buffet, much of it thrown away. Having students carry just one plate (with unlimited second helpings!) allowed the school to dramatically decrease its wasted food, and to lower food costs at the same time.

A local pizza franchise owner found his own solution to the 20-minutes-on-the-hot-rack-then-discard company rule; he boxed unsold slices and froze them for later donation to a soup kitchen.

In Halifax, a volunteer organization called Found has taken its commitment to reducing food waste right to the source, visiting farmers’ markets at the end of market day to collect unsold perishable produce destined for the bin, and organizing gleaning parties to local farm fields and orchards to claim unharvested fruit and vegetables. In the fall of 2016, Found volunteers saved and donated over three thousand pounds of food to local food banks. They also launched innovative programs like Found Fridays, where home gardeners can leave unwanted garden produce on their front step once a week during the growing season for pick up and redistribution to needy organizations.

Another initiative, a kind a reclaimed food night out, sees Found partnering with restaurant owners on the chef’s night off, using their kitchen to create delicious meals from gleaned produce. These evenings raise diners’ awareness about food waste, and lends increased visibility to local restaurants.

Found has also visited the local high school, asking students what they might like to do with $1300.00 a year, the average amount currently thrown away by Canadians via food waste. This sobering statistic may hit home with cost-conscious consumers even more than the environmental impact it represents.

Getting serious about food waste demands that we become more aware, careful shoppers, making full use of our freezers for leftovers, and reusing food before we recycle it. Many cookbooks, like Rachel Ray’s Yummo cookbook for kids, help us plan for getting several easy meals out of that roast chicken or roast beef.

With more and more Canadians using food banks, and with almost certain increases in the price of food, we need to free up sources of still-good food, learn the basics of food spoilage, and remove legal and cultural hurdles to donating food.

Our survival as a species may soon depend on it.

Have a look at this U.N. sponsored video with the sobering stats on worldwide food waste: