When I was a child in Indonesia, I would always get the same advice from my mother and elders, “Tammara, finish every single grain of rice, if you don’t finish it the rice will cry.” The original story that inspired this saying, which I documented in my research, is titled “The Tale of the Crying Rice.” As the story goes, a farmer was out harvesting rice in her field. When she finished and was about to walk inside her home, she heard a crying sound. She looked all over her field and finally found that the source of the crying originated from a handful of unharvested rice left behind. The moral of the story is not that a rice will literally cry if you don’t eat it. Rather, wasting rice, even a single grain, means wasting all of the energy, water and the labour of the farmer. In a country like Indonesia where rice means life and survival, it is taboo to waste food.
This Indonesian story might be familiar to readers coming from rice-eating cultures. In conversation with my students from around the world, I have been told that there are Chinese rice folktales, and Japanese rice stories. Perhaps in another culture it might be a story about maize (corn) in Mexico, or the three sisters of bean, corn and squash (Indigenous). However, while these stories may seem to connect at least some of us to the land, the farmers, and to food itself, the fact is that global food waste is becoming a critical issue, especially here in Canada.
Canada wastes approximately $31 billion dollars’ worth of food annually. This conservative estimate does not take into account the wasted energy, water, soil, and labour attached to the food. If these other costs are taken into account, the food waste cost is closer to $107 billion dollars annually. A recent report by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation noted that Canada is not far behind the United States in food waste generation, with approximately 400 kilograms of food wasted annually for every Canadian.
Another shocking statistic is that an estimated 4 million Canadians live in food insecure households. Food insecurity means that the household lacks money to purchase food, misses meals to cut costs, reduces food intake, or compromises the quality of the food it consumes. Perhaps it is no wonder that my Indonesian elders advise against waste by invoking the symbol of the crying rice. A study by PROOF (Food Insecurity Research) at the University of Toronto found that 1 in 6 Canadian children under 18 are food insecure.
The solution seems to be simple: take the glut and excess from the one side (the food surplus that would otherwise go to waste) and distribute it to the other side that is lacking (food insecure households). But as a food systems scholar, I would argue that there is nothing simple about addressing food waste and food insecurity. It is important to remember that 47 percent of the food waste generated in Canada is household food waste. It would be troubling to think that a solution to address food insecurity would be to focus on sharing our leftovers or our old unwanted food with the poor. As scholars and activists such as Raj Patel and Nick Saul aptly note: “Table scraps for the poor won’t end poverty.”
We need to pause and go back to our collective creativity to truly understand the root cause of the problem. On the issue of food insecurity, it is important to note that those who are food insecure are mostly employed; in fact, many have to work multiple jobs (often precarious jobs) to make ends meet. However, they are not making enough money to buy food. Therefore, shifting products that the market has deemed to be “waste” to people who are food insecure is not a good policy solution, because in the long-run it does not resolve food security and is not sustainable. Most importantly, who wants to be seen as a waste bin?
Some of the solutions to food insecurity are not always necessarily food-based. Nonfood related long-term solutions include better wages, stable jobs, more affordable housing, more affordable transportation services, affordable/universal university education, and support for child care/caregiving. But it is impossible to ignore the fact that there is also a significant amount of food wasted in Canada. So how should this issue be addressed?
Innovative solutions to the food waste problem
We need to convert our paradigm of wastefulness into a paradigm that is based on the principles of the circular economy. In essence, we need to close the loop between the production and consumption in our food system. A closed-loop food system is a system that has no waste and is regenerative. In Canada, the Indigenous principle of “all my relations” is one of the earliest examples of a paradigm that promotes circular thinking based on respect for both human and nonhuman relations (among plants and animals, for example). From a policy perspective, ensuring collaboration with Indigenous elders, Indigenous enterprises, and Indigenous knowledge keepers is key to developing a framework of food waste prevention and reduction that is in tune with the principles of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
In addition to challenging the paradigm of wastefulness, there is much that we can do as a society to tap into the cultural diversity of Canada. Most culinary traditions that have made their home here have found creative ways to be less wasteful. For example, nasi goreng (the famous Indonesian-styled fried rice) is a way to transform old stale rice into something delicious. Chinese dumplings can be filled with leftover veggies and meat. In terms of policy options, it is important to include a diversity of voices in discussions around food waste while encouraging cross-cultural learning on food literacy, especially at the youth level in schools.
Thinking of “waste” as a resource can spark ideas for businesses that transform what we think of waste into food. For example, in the lab I co-founded called the Food Systems Lab, we collaborated with a Toronto company called Earth + City. This company transformed juice pulp into pulp crackers. Another company might transform bruised fruits into jams, ice creams or salsas. In the food waste discipline, scholars call these practices “upcycling.” Investment from the government in food innovation and food research hubs can encourage more businesses that think “outside of the box” to prevent food from turning into waste and transform it into value.
Investment in more sustainable waste management is another path toward developing a closed-loop food system. Food scraps can be turned into valuable compost to nourish the soil and grow more food. This can be facilitated by developing more community/neighbourhood composting infrastructure and better planning guidelines to facilitate composting. Supermarkets should also invest in better logistical management and planning to reduce retail-level food waste. Surplus foods (both at the farm and retail levels) can be sold at alternative food markets via apps such as Flashfood, which also creates opportunities for surplus farm foods that are rejected by supermarkets. Where appropriate, surplus food from retail can be donated to cooking training programs and community food centres (as done by Second Harvest) to develop skills and employment opportunities such as with the L.A. Kitchen program.
At the household level, it is helpful to budget and simplify the menu, which in turn simplifies purchasing ─ don’t stock your fridge to the brim (there are numerous tips offered by Metro-Vancouver’s Love Food Hate Waste campaign). If we work together across the food system and harness our creativity, perhaps I could share a new story, a story where the grains of rice are not wasted and “cry with joy.”
A shorter and modified version of this piece was published in the Millwood Mosaic in Alberta (it is not online).