Food waste is a big global issue

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has estimated that a third of all food produced globally is wasted, that’s 1.3B tonnes.

To put that in context, the Great Pyramid at Giza weighs about 5 million tonnes. If that were food waste it would weigh about 1.4 million tonnes (because food is less dense than stone), so the amount of food waste produced globally is equivalent to just less than 1000 Great Pyramids of Giza.

That’s a lot of food.

Most of this food waste currently goes into land fill or is ploughed back into the ground where it emits huge amounts of green house gases, mostly methane. If food waste was a country it would be the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, behind the US and China.

…if we just reduced the amount of food loss, and food wasted, this would increase global food security in a much faster and more direct way…

We hear a lot about the need to improve agricultural methods to increase the amount of food we produce and to breed new varieties to cope with changing environmental conditions. But if we just reduced the amount of food loss, and food wasted, this would increase global food security in a much faster and more direct way, not to mention cheaper and more environmentally friendly.

It is for these reasons that one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (12.3, part of Responsible Consumption and Production) is to halve per capita global food waste by 2030.

Australia alone wastes $20B of food a year. On average Australian households waste about $4000 of food a year . The country performs worse than the global average for food waste production, with up to 40% of food we produce being lost during the production and manufacturing processes, or wasted by consumers.

The environmental impact of this food waste is massive. Australia’s estimated 7.6M tonnes of wasted food emits 19.3M tonnes of CO2 equivalent – or 3.5% of our total emissions. A lot of water is also wasted in growing the food that ends up as waste. In fact over 1,460 GL of water is wasted each year in this way – almost the required savings under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

So where do we start?

Well we can start at home. Australian food waste distribution charity OzHarvest has started its Think.Eat.Save initiative to reduce household food waste and has a number of useful tips including:

  • planning meals
  • insisting on a take home doggy bag from restaurants
  • and helpful recipes for left over foods.

I went along to the Adelaide event on the 25th July and tasted some of the delicious fares made from wasted food and also participated in a public discussion on how to reduce waste.  The Eat, Think, Save campaign provides practical advice that we can all start adopting now, to save our food waste and grocery bills.

The bike smoothy - Making a delicious smoothy from fruit that would otherwise have been thrown out.
The bike smoothy – Making a delicious smoothy from fruit that would otherwise have been thrown out.

Food waste has become a big issue recently, but how do we go about reducing food waste? There is actually a lot we can do to reduce waste from agricultural production – that is before products make it onto the supermarket shelves.

I expect many people saw the ABC’s War on Waste program – do you remember the mountains of bananas rotting in the fields in Queensland?

Craig Reucassel inspects a mountain of bananas discarded in just one day.Source: courtesy ABC
Craig Reucassel inspects a mountain of bananas discarded in just one day because they were the wrong shape/size .Source: courtesy the ABC

To tackle these issues requires supermarkets to relax guidelines about perfect fruit and vegetable standards, since consumers are a lot more tolerant to a range of products than many supermarkets assume. Take for example the success of Woolies Ugly Bunch program that sells sell misshapen fruit and veg.

But we also need to establish a new food waste economy that can generate new food and other products out of agricultural waste rather than dumping food into landfills.

If agricultural food waste collection can be coordinated, even regionally or at a landscape scale, it makes it cost effect to turn agricultural waste into new products, for example:

  • Preserved or processed foods
  • Refined additives and nutraceuticals
  • Cosmetics
  • Energy – biocoal and biodiesel
  • Fertiliser for production

So there is a lot more we can and should be doing with food waste.

Solving these issues would also generate a new circular economy which centres on food. Making food waste a valuable by product. We are starting to see some promising signs in these areas and a new research centre has been proposed to help coordinate these efforts with over $120M of support from industry, government and research institutes.

The future for food waste is promising and with such initiatives we should see the UN sustainability goal, which aims to cut food waste in half by 2030, achieved and possibly even surpassed.

Edited transcript of public panel discussion given by Prof Andy Lowe at Think.Eat.Save event held by OzHarvest, Goodman Lawns, University of Adelaide, North Terrace, Adelaide 25th July 2017. Other panel members included Duncan Welgemoed, Chef, Africola restaurant; Karena Armstrong, Chef, The Salopian Inn, McLaren Vale; Tim James, State Manager of OzHarvest; Ben Hood & ‘George the Farmer’. Event MC and OzHarvest Ambassador Keith Conlon.

Published by Prof Andy Lowe

Prof Andy Lowe is a British-Australian scientist and expert in plants and trees, particularly the management of genetic, biological and ecosystem resources. He has discovered lost forests, championed to eliminate illegally logged timber in global supply chains, served the United Nation’s Office of Drugs and Crime and is a lead author of the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services – Land Degradation and Restoration report. He has helped secure a quarter of a billion dollars worth of research funding in his field and is an experienced and respected executive leader, board member, as well as mid-career mentor. Andy is a passionate science communicator, he has been Scientist in Residence at The Australian Financial Review and the Advertiser and is a regular author, speaker and podcast host.

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