The true cost of global food waste, and what we can do to combat it.
Food waste is a cultural, environmental and economic problem of staggering proportion, but there is hope. LINDY ALEXANDER talks to those coming to the rescue with ways to help curb this global issue
Imagine this: you are at the supermarket doing your weekly shop. You select ripe tomatoes, fragrant peaches, glossy eggplants, pasta, milk, flour and all the staples you need. At the checkout, the cashier places your groceries into several bags. On your way out, you toss one bag into a rubbish bin. You repeat the same thing every week.
It’s a baffling, careless and disturbing picture. Yet a third of all food produced globally is wasted. According to the UN, if food waste was a country, it would be the third-highest greenhouse gas emitter after China and the United States. Between the domestic and commercial world, Australians alone squander $10 billion worth of edible food each year. The average family fritters away over $1000 worth of food annually.
“Think of it as each household throwing away one out of every four bags of groceries, and businesses throwing away one in every four to five,” says sustainable food researcher Dianne Mcgrath.
At Melbourne’s RMIT, Mcgrath has investigated the amount of food wasted by the Australian hospitality sector. Her research suggests that one in four Australians leave food on their plate when they dine out.
“They may be leaving nearly 20 per cent of their meal,” says Mcgrath.
“The way that many cafes and restaurants currently present, offer and deliver menu options may be a major contributor to this.”
Smaller or more varied portion sizes, having sides as optional extras, and removing garnishes are all ways to help curb food waste.
“These approaches will have an impact on the environment by reducing greenhouse gases as well as the natural resources lost,” she says.
Recyclable “doggie bags” would no doubt help, too. However, in Australian eateries, these can be hard to come by.
For Ronni Kahn, founder of food rescue charity Ozharvest, the environmental impact of food waste cannot be overstated.
“Only a small proportion of food from producers, manufacturers, growers, retailers, hotels, delis and supermarkets is being rescued,” she says. “A lot still goes to landfill and that’s the biggest challenge.”
Kahn started Ozharvest 12 years ago in response to surplus food in the hospitality industry. The charity collects quality excess food from over 2000 commercial outlets and delivers it to more than 900 charities. “We’ve saved over 20 million kilograms of good food from going to landfill and we’ve delivered the equivalent of almost 60 million meals to vulnerable people.”
But there’s still much to be done. “We need to understand that every time we throw away a banana with a blemish, or discard milk past its use-by date without sniffing or tasting it, it’s costing us fuel, water, labour, energy,” Kahn says. “But there’s a whole range of different solutions people are coming up with.”
One US entrepreneur makes granola with pulp collected from juice bars, while another upcycles grain left over from beer production into snack bars. There are also numerous food waste apps, including ones to help you plan meals, generate shopping lists, and even encourage neighbourhood food sharing.
Technology is crucial to solving this issue says zero-waste advocate Joost Bakker. “There’s a growing culture of farmers using modern technology to sell their food direct,” he says.
Facebook, Instagram and Twitter enable consumers to connect with farmers and producers on social media.
“I get my milk from a guy who has 13 cows,” says Bakker. “That’s the future. If people know where their food comes from, they are less likely to waste it.”
Composting food scraps and reusing them to fertilise soil helps to reduce the amount of methane-releasing landfill. At his groundbreaking Melbourne cafe, Brothl, which closed in 2015, Bakker didn’t have a rubbish bin on site. Whatever waste they generated went into a compost machine and then to his farm. “It’s inspired a lot of people around the world, like Silo in the UK and Dan Barber in New York,” he says.
“We need to realise that food is a finite resource,” Alastair Mcleod, owner and chef at Al’freshco Catering in Queensland, says.
Mcleod sees potential dinners where others see spoiled vegetables. “Soups and curries are a great option for using vegetables that are past their best,” he says. “Add spices and fresh herbs to pump up the flavour.”
At-home solutions include sticking to a shopping list, minimising portions, and getting creative with leftovers.
“I had some leftover pumpkin, so last night I made a pumpkin frittata,” says Mcleod. “I threw in all my odds and sods of cheese, some egg, chilli and creme fraiche and it was a lovely dish.” Ozharvest’s annual CEO Cookoff takes place tomorrow in Sydney. It brings together chefs, CEOS and leading companies to raise funds and feed people in need. ceocookoff.com.au For more ideas on creative ways with leftovers, see delicious.com.au