Waste not, want not... why we throw away good food

Food is being thrown away in huge amounts. Is it because we've just made it too darned cheap? And what New Zealand could do...

Melbourne's RMIT University reported in July last year that 50 percent of household waste, irrespective of socio-economic grouping was discarded food.

Fresh fruit, vegetables, pre-prepared meals, breads and cereals were the most common items thrown away each week. The main reasons for throwing good food away were buying more than needed, poor storage, spoiled food, expired use-by dates and forgotten leftovers.

“Understanding food waste is more about shifting the everyday practices of buying, cooking and storing food that generate waste, and less about what is being put in the bin,” said lead researcher Associate Professor Karli Verghese.

New Zealand food waste research gives the top ten avoidable food wastes, as a percentage of all avoidable food waste, as potatoes, sliced bread, apples, meat or fish mixed meals, exotic breads, vegetable mixed meals, pasta mixed meals, bread rolls, rice mixed meals and mixed meals…

The total is a waste of over $800 million per year, or... $155 per person. The Wellington City Council calculates that the average household sends 79kg of edible food to landfills every year, and avoidable food waste costs $600 per household.
In 2013 the Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ (IME) in Britain released a report entitled Global Food Waste Not, Want Not, which analysed where waste happens in different societies. IME reported that as economic development occurs, losses move up the value chain.

In less-developed countries the big losses were with the farmer-producer. In Vietnam rice losses between the field and the table were found to amount to 80% of production, and in China they were 45%.

In developed nations, more efficient farming practices and better transport, storage and processing facilities ensure that a larger proportion of the food produced reaches markets and consumers. Current consumer expectation and behaviours, however, results in huge wastage. In the UK, 30% of crops are rejected because they don’t meet size and appearance requirements. Once the food is in the supermarket, use-by and best-by dates mean that a considerable quantity of food is not sold. Of the food purchased, between 30 and 50% of what is taken home is thrown away by the purchaser.

The problem identified in the IME report is that people have little understanding of the source and value of food – even though they complain about cost.

As food prices continue to fall, the problem could get worse. The FAO Global Food Price Index is at its lowest value since 2009 due to decreases in cereals, dairy and meat. Although sugar prices have risen due to temporary delays in Brazil’s crushing season, supplies are abundant. The vegetable oil price index has also risen due to concerns about El Niño conditions affecting production in South East Asia. But it is the carbohydrate and animal protein that have sent the index down.
Food prices are at a six year low.

Of course people will immediately say that this is not true in New Zealand, but as a proportion of discretionary income food is cheap: salaries have increased faster than the food price index in recent years. In addition, it must be remembered that more and more of the food budget is being spent on pre-prepared food outside the home, or for home consumption. And then it is thrown away.

World Environment Day (5th June) was used by the United Nations to remind people that roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year gets lost or wasted. This amounts to what the UN describes as ‘a major squandering of resources’ because the water, labour, fertiliser and capital that is used in growing the food is wasted. In addition, there is ‘needless production of greenhouse gas emissions in landfill, contributing to global warming and climate change’.

IME’s three recommendations were

1. improved production systems in newly-developing countries

2. incorporating waste minimisation in transport infrastructure and storage facilities in rapidly-developing countries, and

3. implementing policies that change consumer expectations in developed countries.

The policies must discourage retailers from practices that lead to the rejection of food on the basis of cosmetic characteristics, and losses in the home due to excessive purchasing by consumers.

In an attempt to reduce wastage, France has made it illegal for large supermarkets (over approximately 400 square metres) to throw edible but unattractive food away. It must now be given to charity or be used as animal food. Fines of up to $82,000 have been indicated. This decision, which will come into force in July 2016, followed the European Union pledge to cut food waste by 50% by 2025. Changes in ‘overly conservative’ expiry dates to reflect reality have also been made.

It is a triumph of agricultural science that we are feeding more people to a better state of nutrition than ever before. The FAO reported last year that less than15% of the world’s population is now under-nourished in comparison with approximately 24% in 1990. This month the FAO has indicated that the number of hungry people in the world has fallen to 795 million – 10 million fewer than last year and 216 million fewer that in 1990-92.

There are, however, still too many people hungry, and New Zealanders could have a role to play in enabling developing countries to prevent food losses pre-harvest with production systems involving precision agriculture.

New Zealanders could also have a role with developed countries in education, perhaps by creating and franchising a new TV reality show that involves a competition to see how many meals can be created for a family of four for $100 or $200. This would necessitate a focus on cooking from scratch with total use of purchases, including scraps and leftovers. By replacing the usual challenge for the perfect dish with a challenge to create something for the home table, people could learn how to make main events and also such things as soup, fritters, pies and stuffed pancakes using the scraps and leftovers. They would also get the idea about shopping with a list for a series of planned meals, so aligning with Associate Professor Karli Verghese’s comments on buying, cooking and storing.

Whatever country is being considered, creating greater understanding of food production systems requires education through schools, tertiary institutions and society in general. Author of The Coming Famine, Julian Cribbs, has suggested that “Every subject at school should be taught through the lens of food. We should also declare ‘The Year of Food’ and focus on informing consumers about food production. This is The Age of Food and Sustainable Food should be the fashion of this Century.”

With New Zealand’s leadership in the sustainable production of animal protein and fibre, we should be leaders in educating the world in sustainable management of food as well.