Waste is on the radar and many firms have been doing positive things. However, much of that effort is misdirected and voluntary, with limited uptake by the actors critical to improving the situation. “[T[he links between the various economic and cultural processes that give rise to waste, [remind] us that it is essential to research food waste as it appears within different national, institutional and regulatory contexts.” (Evans et al., 2013, p. 10) Our strategic approach in this paper, then, is to create a regulatory environment in Canada that supports many of the positive undertakings, but essentially forces most actors to participate in a way that addresses root causes of the problems. This is not to discount the many things that firms and individuals are doing, but the focus here is on interventions involving the state.

Food waste reduction frameworks

This strategic approach is framed by a number of concepts. First, a food chain approach is critical and represents a departure from many earlier approaches that tended to focus on individual sectors (Jackson, Ward, & Russell, 2006). “While the majority of food waste occurs at the consumer level, improving the management of agri-food value chains would have the greatest long-term impact on reducing food waste, and the resulting economic and environmental impacts.”(Gooch et al., 2010, p. 10) Concluded WRAP U.K. (2011a), “the greatest successes so far have come from addressing the whole supply chain collectively, as experience shows that reducing waste in one area may, in fact, create it somewhere else.” Supply chain analysis provides a clearer picture of various participants and may lead to greater systemic efficiency (Hodges et al., 2011). As Gille (2013, p. 40) argues,

We need to do two things in our analysis: first, stop conflating the location with the cause of waste; and, secondly, make visible how resource waste and food waste are interconnected.... If we want to find places for intervention, those relations that cross not only geographical and political boundaries but also scales must be analysed. The problem for policy-making, however, is that it is exactly these types of complex and multi-scalar forms of food waste that are the hardest to quantify and therefore the hardest to eliminate.... If food loss is caused by non-human factors – weather or pests – the solution is greater mastery over nature: that is, technological innovation. However, if food loss is caused by social arrangements, the solution resides in new institutions and the reorganising of structures leading to systemic loss. My general view is that both accidental/natural and systemic/social causes of food waste must be attended to.

Second, we employ an agroecological interpretation of waste. In such an approach, the food system is a production–consumption–recycle system (Hill, 1985), in which soil organisms play a fundamental role in transforming organic material into energy, nutrients and water that can be used in subsequent production cycles. In this sense, there is no waste, only food for other processes and organisms. Consistent with this, human survival has historically depended on consuming all edibles and using inedibles primarily for other purposes– shelter, clothing, animal feed (essentially a secondary edible use), tools and production, and sometimes heating / cooking fuel. So what hierarchies and instruments encourage optimal utilization of edible food before inedible food goes into secondary processes?

An agroecological approach demands changes to traditional food waste management hierarchies. The European Commission’s Waste Hierarchy Directive in 2008 (EC, 2012) (in order from most preferred to least preferred) only partly reflects such ecological principles:

  • waste prevention (non-waste)
  • preparing for reuse
  • recycling
  • recovery
  • disposal

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (2014) food recovery hierarchy (in order from most preferred to least preferred) is somewhat more reflective of an agroecological approach:

  • source reduction: reduce the volume of surplus food generated
  • feed hungry people: donate extra food to food banks, soup kitchens and shelters
  • feed animals: divert food scraps to animal feed
  • industrial uses: provide waste oils for rendering and fuel conservation an dofood scraps for digestion to recover energy
  • composting: create a nutrient-rich soil amendment
  • landfill/incineration: last resort to disposal

Better frameworks and hierarchies than these are required because otherwise the capitalist drive to surplus accumulation captures food waste as energy or other secondary processes and makes those processes actually more important than ensuring people have access to a nourishing diet. O’Brien (2013) captures this reality well in his story of freegans prosecuted in Europe for stealing an energy resource, that is, food that had already been dumped as waste but was to be collected by a biomass energy producer. Many proposals from industry and government to improve food waste management unfortunately facilitate this drive to surplus accumulation (for an example of such proposals, see Gooch et al., 2010) or focus more on food rescue for human consumption at the expense of prevention (Gooch et al. 2019).

To correct for the causal forces identified above, we propose the following hierarchy from which to design regulatory structures and processes (and provide preliminary broad observations on current challenges associated with fulfilling the hierarchy):

  • Level 1: Edible food for direct human consumption at minimum resource expenditure, including market and non-market mechanism. Challenges: tailoring resource quality and quantity to food production; shifting all producers to sustainable practices; redesigning processing to minimize waste generation and maximize resource use efficiencies; sustainable procurement within agrifood firms; demand-supply coordination for edibles, animal feed and secondary processes.
  • Level 2: Animal feed (and pet food) without human edibles, but includes human inedibles, such as corn cobs, skins, husks. Challenges: removing most human edibles from animal feed which has tremendous implications for animal production;  limited number of animal feed processors and distributors able to cycle human inedible food waste to animals, a task more feasible for the farm and processing sectors, but more difficult for retail, restaurants and households.
  • Level 3: Human and animal inedibles directed to compost and industrial applications, including waxes, leather and other clothing, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, construction materials, plastics, energy and inputs (e.g., compost).Challenges: the need to minimize farmland use for direct energy production unless land quality makes food production impractical; careful targeting of health applications since many plants are essential to the pharmaceutical sector; designing plastics and chemicals from secondary not primary food materials; efficiently using land for inputs, such as breeding stock and seed.  In the case of most farms where energy is produced, it should be consistent with an agroecological approach; that is, it should be a coherent and integrated complement to food produced. If energy crops are planted, the system must be highly efficient, otherwise other measures make more sense in terms of opportunity costs (for more, see MacRae et al. 2010).
  • Level 4: Sewage sludge and humanure application to farm land to close nutrient and energy loops.Challenges: gap between the potential purity of individual household humanure (assuming the family is healthy and not requiring significant medication) and the end products arising from current residential human waste collection and treatment systems; need to separate residential and industrial sewage and improve sewage treatment processes

To date, the market has proven itself unable to manage food resources consistent with the hierarchy of uses proposed here. Although there have been improvements in food firm behaviour, particularly at the efficiency stage, individual firms will not be able to identify wider structural problems and coordinate changes across firms in order to dramatically reduce food waste. Consequently, there is a significant role for the state, particularly beyond the efficiency stage.


[1] Note that there are many transition frameworks. See MacRae and Winfield (2016) for a review pertinent to food policy themes.