I’m sure that at one time or another every one of us has felt a pang of guilt as we’ve binned an old carrot that slid to the bottom of the fridge, or perhaps felt discomfort when spotting a commercial skip filled with new-looking food products. Maybe you even helped yourself to some of these products and pondered why they were there in the first place as you savour your seemingly perfect yoghurt or bread. If you have, you’re not alone; you have had your very own glimpse into the world of food waste, a national and global problem.
A report released in 2013 by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers estimated that between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of all food produced worldwide is wasted before it reaches human stomachs. Even at the lowest end, this would amount to around a staggering 1.3 billion tons per year. In developing countries, most wastage occurs during production. While in developed countries, increased efficiency in farming, transport, storage and processing means more food reaches consumers, but instead of this resulting in a reduction of wastage, the problem just seems to move to the retail and consumer level instead.
Statistics regarding food waste in New Zealand are somewhat vague. The Ministry for the Environment (MfE) reports that 28 per cent of all landfill waste is organic (this includes kitchen waste, green waste and other food processing waste) and that the agricultural, food, and beverage sectors are responsible for a large proportion of this. A 2008 report to the MfE estimated that around 64kg per person of residential organic waste goes to landfill per year, amounting to approximately six per cent of landfill waste altogether. Waste Not looked at a sample of Auckland kerbside bins in 2008 and found that 24 per cent was food that could have been eaten, amounting to almost 1kg per household every week!
So why should you care?The large amounts of energy required to produce food as well as the fact that many in New Zealand go hungry mean there is a strong moral obligation not to waste it. Food rotting in landfills is a significant source of methane, a greenhouse gas with many times the global warming power of CO2. Kept separately, food waste could be used as compost to improve soil health, fed to livestock, or digested anaerobically with the methane captured as a combustible fuel source and the remaining effluent used as fertiliser. While these methods are suitable for inedible food waste, and preferable to landfill for food waste of any kind, they still require more resources than simply making sure that good edible food doesn’t end up in the rubbish. A small study by the Australian institute estimated that approximately $155 per person and $751m in total per annum is wasted on food in NZ.
According to Tristram Stuart, an author who spent three years travelling the world researching food waste, New Zealand produces 160 per cent more than the nutritional needs of its population (not including crops fed to animals or not harvested), above Australia and Japan, but below the US and most of the EU. Studies estimate that 130 per cent is a sufficient buffer against food shortage; oddly, however, no extensive studies have been done to establish this.
Such figures raise the question – how are we in a situation where there’s more food than we need? Stuart explores the history of food wastage in his book Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, finding that it has waxed and waned over the years. For example, in 1930s UK only two to three per cent of calories were wasted, climbing only to between four and six per cent in the 1970s, and during WWI it was a crime to waste wheat, rye or rice. Food waste is not a new problem, though; archaeological remains from 12,000 years ago show hugely inefficient butchering of mammoths with much meat being left to rot rather than dried out. Condemnation of food waste can also be found far back in history – such as in John Locke’s 1690 Second Treatise of Government where he called food waste an offence “… against the common law of nature.” Locke considered that leaving food to waste was essentially a theft from the commons, and that by wasting food you gave up your right to possess it.
Historically, consuming resources even to the point of exhaustion may have provided the boost in population required to conquer neighbouring clans and thus increase benefits to a group by allowing them to increase their territory. Similarly, a large food surplus allowed fewer members of society to have to engage in food production – allowing technological development and a large trained military force. In European history, excessive production and consumption (particularly by the rich) acted as a self regulating buffer against famine, socially acceptable until times of scarcity – where all were instructed to tighten their belts and stop fattening animals so that all could eat the remaining grain and potatoes. But most modern developed countries have long since passed these points and have more than sufficient to protect themselves from food shortages, so why have we kept going? Stuart draws parallels between the excessive feasting seen in tribal cultures and modern food production, both can be explained as a show of wealth, power and prestige. Just as one tribe wishes to show off its success to its neighbours – supermarkets pile their shelves ever higher to show their superiority over their competitors. Even food aid provided to developing nations – seemingly altruistic at first glance, has the danger of leading to loss of independence in developing nations, leading some aid agencies to call for an end to non-emergency aid.
History also contains some examples of societies taking measures to alter over-consumptive systems in times of necessity, for example inhabitants of 1600s Tikopia decided to kill every pig when they realised they were unsustainable consumers of produce, and the Hindu ban on slaughtering cattle has been suggested to have originated from their difficulty to maintain as a food source and their more efficient use as farming tools, or possibly from complaints by poorer classes of wasteful sacrifices by the rich.
Are we just stuck in old habits reinforced by those who profit from wasteful production systems? Are most of us just ignorant given that waste can be so easily hidden out of sight and mind from urban centres where political influence is concentrated? Is there any chance of a significant change while a capitalist system still exists? Regardless of the answers to these questions, excuses for excess seem to be fast running out as the population and temperature of the planet increases.
What can we do?While infrastructure and strategies to divert food waste landfills are beneficial, the best strategy is to prevent it from being waste in the first place. So while you’re not too depressed to concentrate on the rest of your lecture, I will conclude with some suggestions and examples of ways to minimise food waste.
Best-before datesThere are two types of dates you will see on food in New Zealand – a use-by date, and a best-before date. A use-by date relates to the safety of the product and is calculated by testing how long it takes the product to become unsafe for human consumption. A best-before date relates to the quality of the food, and is calculated by estimating when nutritional value or sensory characteristics start to decrease. Use-by dates are obviously mandatory for many types of foods, however, so are best-before dates in many circumstances. Both dates are likely to be on the conservative side, to encourage consumers to eat the product quickly and minimise the perception that it is the manufacturers fault if the consumer is unhappy with the product after this time.
Best-before dates have been implicated as encouraging wastage due to consumers’ strict adherence to them. The European Union is currently looking at scrapping the dates and allowing consumers to figure out for themselves whether the contents of their pantry are of good enough quality to eat. The Herald reports support for this proposal from New Zealand experts also, so hopefully we will see a reduction in best-before dates soon. In the meantime, remember that a best-before date does not mean the food will be bad for you and even a use-by date is likely to be conservative. Perhaps try and re-examine your own internalised behaviours and assumptions when clearing out your fridge and pantry. I know that my background working in commercial kitchens and studying food science has trained me to be extremely risk-averse which, while beneficial when producing food for many, is likely unnecessary when just providing for myself or a few others.
PlanningStuart recommends careful planning of shopping, portion sizes and use of leftovers to help minimise the amount of food thrown away (potato skins make awesome chips, by the way). However, one problem I often have is finding myself stuck with large amounts of a particular specialised ingredient once I’ve cooked a meal – and really there’s only so many meals one can use an obscure spice in before its flavours start to dull. German company Original Unvertpackt, is helping to deal with this problem by opening a “zero-waste” supermarket made up entirely of bulk-bins and fresh produce allowing consumers not only to have complete freedom of how much they buy but also to reduce packaging waste. Hopefully such stores will grow in popularity or the model will be adopted in part by supermarkets – perhaps by expanding their bulk bin selections.
Diverting food-waste from landfillsInevitably no matter how good we get at buying only what we need and using it all up there is likely always going to be some food waste at consumer level such as vegetable scraps and the like. At this point, the focus changes to what happens to it. A small 2008 MfE survey estimated that 63 per cent of people compost at home, dropping to 58 per cent for the urban North Island. A 2011 study by Mobius Research showed that only 39 per cent of Aucklanders compost. I would suspect further research would show similar figures or lower for inner city areas with a lot of apartments, thus an organic waste collection service may be beneficial for inner city areas. Only five local councils in the country currently offer such a service to residential properties, however, interest appears to be picking up with the Auckland Council reporting last week a successful trial adopted by 70 per cent of North Shore homes. One News reports that the compost is processed at a facility for ten weeks and finally ends up as fertiliser or soil improver. Dunedin City Council does not currently offer this service; it was proposed in 2009 but was not pursued due to lack of demand. In the meantime, try to set up composting in your flat if possible, although this can be difficult if you are in a city apartment – we tried a Bokashi a few years ago, a nifty composting bucket available from the DCC which uses a micro-organism mix to digest food quickly and with minimal odour. It was extremely effective, however, we quickly filled up the small planters on our flat balcony and were a bit stumped as to what to do after that. Nevertheless, if you have a willing recipient for its contents once a week or so, a bokashi may be a good option for a small flat or office.
On the commercial side of things, while I still hear stories of successful dumpster dive trips yielding numerous luxury products (gluten free bread and cheese seem to be the most common finds), it is heartening to see some organised food redistribution occurring. Foodshare Dunedin, and similar organisations in other major cities, collect and redistribute food donated by commercial producers to community organisations. Since 2012, Foodshare’s website states, 86,864 kilograms of food have been diverted from landfill to provide 248,185 meals.
Many large food retailers also seem to be picking up on the issue and developing policies to minimise waste. Countdown’s website reports a policy of donating food to charity partners where possible and also reports donations of old bread and vegetables for farm use, while Foodstuffs recently announced a new recycling program to separate out waste and repurpose it, such as using old meat for pet food or tallow and repurposing bakery items as animal feed. Their website reports that one store reduced its waste from 11 to 3.6 tonnes.
While such contributions are positive, supermarkets should also be pressured to lower their standards with regards to produce appearance – as unnecessarily high visual quality standards have been implicated as causing much waste at harvest level. For example, Stuart reports that Marks & Spencer refused to accept sandwiches from a supplier if they included the four pieces of bread from either end of the loaf! Independent audits and transparency will be crucial if the public is to have confidence in companies’ commitments. Question your local retailer about their food waste practices, and if you suspect waste – don’t be afraid to investigate and use the power of the spotlight. Question local business or your workplace as well – businesses and organisations with many people consuming food on-site should have a triple bin system with landfill, recycling and composting sections. This is yet to be seen around the University, although their website reports that there is a new initiative to compost Green Waste and food scraps for bio-gas.
Future innovation?There’s nothing like a crisis to inspire creativity, and exciting innovations to deal with waste problems are coming from a number of disciplines. Finding ways to use grape skins (a waste product from the wine industry) to make dietary supplements and antioxidant additives has been a popular topic in recent years. While German company Qmilch has developed a way to manufacture a silk-like fabric using milk no longer suitable for human consumption. Otago Food Science lecturer Dr Miranda Mirosa looks from a consumer behaviour perspective at how people are cooking and why waste occurs, including why offal is under-utilised.
Food waste is a complex problem, and effort and innovation from all areas of the industry is needed to ensure we can maintain a sustainable food system. However, remember that we as consumers are responsible for a large proportion of the problem – and through simple changes in behaviour at home we can reduce our environmental footprint and be drivers of change in the industry by becoming informed consumers and producers of food.