Still, waste needs to be reduced at source. Barrington says food production waste is as high as 45 per cent and is the third-largest greenhouse-gas producer in the world. She’s frustrated by misconceptions in the food industry. “It’s hard to talk to people about food, they get very emotional. And when they get emotional, they won’t listen to you,” she emphasizes.
People must realize no food-production system is perfect, Barrington says. Even organic farms have an environmental impact in terms of poorly balanced fertilization, mainly based on manures, leading to excessive nitrogen applications and water pollution. “People should ask the right questions rather than believe what they want to believe,” she says.
Many insist that choosing plant-based foods instead of beef is better for the environment, yet Barrington points out that growing fruit and vegetables has effects as well. Fruit and vegetable production requires huge amounts of irrigated water, taking away from human water supplies, whereas raising beef uses rain lost as it falls on land that couldn’t be used for crops in any case. The food waste from crops is high, and is often left to rot on the ground, creating greenhouse gases.
Barrington favours the “reasonable agriculture” approach, which falls between conventional and organic, minimizing the negative impact of each. What she’d really like to see, though, is better market organization. She finds food suspiciously expensive, given that only 10 to 12 per cent of the price is going to the farmer.
Barrington sees an answer in the quota system (like with Quebec’s dairy production), in which the government regulates food production to match what the population consumes, plus a reserve. While Canadian milk costs more than milk in the U.S., it receives no subsidies and part of the cost goes toward environmental stewardship at the farm. The quota system removes all incentive to overproduce.
“In Canada, nobody wastes a drop of milk,” she says. “In the U.S., where milk is government subsidized at the rate of at least 0.30$/L, if a little mistake happens during processing, they dump the whole big tank in the sewer, pick up the phone and buy more government-subsidized milk.” Then the wastewater needs treatment, too, adding to the cost.
There’s food production, then how we bring it home. “Plastics is a big issue,” says Barrington. Though we can’t avoid plastic, we should minimize it. She’d like to see grocery stores sell reusable bags alongside their fruit and vegetables, and for coffee shops to charge exorbitantly for plastic-lined single-use cups so customers would have further incentive to bring their own. And we should avoid ready-made meals and convenient-but-overpackaged foods.
“This younger generation, they don’t want climate change, but their way of life is not geared towards reducing plastic and waste,” she says. “They don’t cook!” “There are alternatives out there, but they are probably more expensive than regular petroleum plastic. People have to be willing to pay for it,” she says. This goes for big items, too. So much of what we buy doesn’t last long, from our laptops to household appliances. Barrington would be willing to pay more for a durable, well-made refrigerator. “Maybe we’re better off to give them a bit more profit, but then make sure it lasts longer.”
Engineers not only see the big picture, but also the long run. “There are a lot of solutions out there today. We should never limit ourselves to a single solution,” Barrington says, “People have to open their minds to the fact that it’s a combination of things that will make the world work.”