Food is Food Blog

My Most Excellent Field Trip

This is the time of year for school field trips. In support of my own PhD research at Western University’s the Heal Laboratory I visited Wageningen University while in the Netherlands. A few thoughts follow:

People are not all that different from each other. In a case of the “grass is greener” (and it is really, really green here) and latent patriotism I would think that the Dutch would have wrestled food waste to the ground by now. It turns out they haven’t and along with the rest of us are still trying to figure out why food is thrown away and what strategy(ies) can best be used to stop it.

I come to these conclusions after meeting with some Wageningen University food waste reduction scholars (Dr. Erica van Herpen, Ir. Toine Timmermans and PhD Candidate Daphne Roodhuyzen). I arranged to meet while on my visit to the Netherlands. While it is a little disheartening that no apparent universal interventions have been identified it is heartening that we are all more or less on, if not at, the same page.

wag ur 2c687783-3c26-4bb2-a8ce-960b74149860_Wageningen-University

There was broad agreement that the numbers estimating food waste generation are not what they could be. On an order of magnitude basis it is clear that there is a problem, however, no additional stock should be placed on the available and heavily quoted “grey” literature, whose estimates are being relied upon and flouted with some abandon. That is not to say that this grey literature is not without its benefit, it’s just that it has not passed through the academic peer review stress test to ascertain the veracity of these estimates. The great benefit of this work has been that it has shed an important light on a real problem and ultimately is also helping direct where academic research is required.

To develop interventions and ultimately facilitating policies requires rigourous data collection and testing. For the residential waste stream having volunteers weigh and describe food waste through so-called diary type collection generates interesting results of what I would describe as the “right side of a bell curve”. It relies on volunteers and likely keeners to self report the activities that they very likely believe to be quite wrong. It can generate some useful data but potential bias conditions pervade. What is interesting (and unique) however is Professor Erica van Herpen’s research that is using this methodology to also determine when people waste food (e.g. spoilage, meal preparation, leftovers etc.).

Waste auditing can be used to collect “single blind” data on what residents throw away in any of their streams. It removes generator bias and with proper planning can essentially eliminate researcher bias. It’s a hard number. How many kilograms of food waste are found in a week’s garbage, green bin or recycling streams. It will produce an underestimate, as it does not consider food fed to animals, back yard composting or directed to sinks. It is the minimum amount of food that is wasted.

It will be important to communicate with people at some point to help better understand their understanding of how food becomes food waste, why this happens and what it would take to change their behavior in a sustained way. Focus groups, one-on-one visits and surveys are all ways that have been used to get at this information.

For what its worth my current prevailing belief is that some sort of quantitative drivers (involuntary) need to be used to quarterback changes, with collateral and supporting qualitative (voluntary) drivers. This moves us away from trying to find some universal reason for why people waste food (there isn’t one) and moves to something that compels, or as Dr. van Herpen puts “nudges” behavior change (e.g., banning avoidable food waste at the curb, increasing costs for avoidable food waste disposal and/or regulating the available waste capacity through smaller containers and/or frequency of collection). It still allows the development and implementation of relevant qualitative drivers based on the results of survey and focus group data collected in various communities.

To paraphrase Ir. Timmermans, at this point this approach is politically unpalatable.

As a society I think we will need to decide if this problem ranks up with “life and death” issues such as smoking, drinking and driving, wearing seatbelts and so on. If so it can be made politically palatable and drive the required change. If not we will continue to muddle along, no doubt making progress, but not getting to where we really need to be.

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