11 February 2011

Getting 'FoodWise' About Wasting Food

Reposted in full from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 8 February 2011

'Food is the one thing that unifies us. We love it. We eat it. It brings us together and it sustains us. The sights and smells of food encourage us to eat more, but as we do, we also throw more of it away.

The latest Federal Government figures indicate that Australians are throwing out 7.5 million tonnes of food waste every year. Some 4.45 million tonnes of this is from households and 3.12 million tonnes is from commercial and industrial sources. Research by Do Something shows that Australians are spending $7.8 billion on food that we buy but don't eat. When you consider how many people worldwide are starving, it's almost criminal that Australians are wasting so much food.

Food waste is a waste of money

IBISWorld research shows that Australians are spending $71 billion each year on food that we consume in the home. On top of that we spend $16.5 billion on takeaway food and a further $7.7 billion on food that we buy in restaurants and cafes. With so many household budgets under strain, it's surprising how much food Australia throws away. Every day we literally create mountains of food waste.

Garbage bin analysis in NSW, Victoria and South Australia shows that 40 to 41 per cent of the contents of our household garbage bins is food.

Overseas, the story is the same. Every single day, Britons throws away five million potatoes, a million slices of ham, four million apples and seven million slices of bread.

In Australia, some experts believe that we're throwing away at least 20 per cent of the food that we buy. That's the equivalent of buying five bags of groceries and throwing one away. Given the cost of today's food, that's clearly not sustainable for the family budget.

The environmental impact

Neither is it sustainable for the environment. When food waste rots in landfill it produces methane, a greenhouse gas that's 25 times more potent than the CO2 pouring out of your car's exhaust. The British Government estimates that the UK food chain accounts for a fifth of their carbon emissions. That problem has become so big that stopping food waste in the UK would be equivalent to taking one in five cars off their roads.

In preparing this article, I rummaged through people's bins and took long walks on landfill sites. It wasn't pleasant. There's something rather sad about seeing so much good food turning into a rotting mash of glunk. For me, it was an eye opener into what's wrong with our modern busy lives.

Indeed, the explosion in resource use that has come from the growing, processing, packaging and transportation of modern food is frightening.

A recipe for disaster

When I was a child, I grew up in a country community where food production and consumption was a far simpler process. Farmers grew the food and brought it fresh to the local market. Food was grown seasonally and people adjusted their meals to match their locally available food.

Today's food system, however, is a recipe for environmental disaster.

Food is often grown, refrigerated and transported hundreds of kilometres into centralised warehouses. From there, it's trucked to supermarkets spread out into distant communities. The pre-packaged convenience food we buy contains ingredients that can criss-cross a continent. Even out of season food is flown around the world to ensure that nature doesn't cramp our ability to eat what we want, when we want it.

As a result, when we throw away food, we also waste all of the resources, fuel and energy that was used to get that food from the paddock to our plate. That's even if it gets to our plate. Far too much of our food doesn't even get that far before we bin it. In Queensland, research revealed that 60,000 tonnes of bananas don't even make it past the farm gate every year.

The 'cosmetic retail standards' required by major supermarkets and others, means that millions of bananas are chopped up and put straight back on to the land. According to Primary Industries Minister Tim Mulherin, nearly a third of the crop is graded out. The reason? They're too small or they have minor blemishes.

Australians also throw away food because we forget about it. We leave it lingering in the depths of our fridges and cupboards, unused and unloved. When we do use it, we use too much and even then we don't use the leftovers. It's an approach to food that's anathema to older generations.

Learning from the past

What I loved about my grandmother was that she could always make meals from leftovers. I'm not sure that I ever got to see the original meal, but she could make a meal from anything. She was from a wartime generation that truly valued food and made the most of every scrap. This cooking of leftovers was the earliest form of recycling and your table options were to take it or leave it. If you left it, you went hungry. So you ate it.

Take water, for example. Australians live on the world's driest inhabited continent, but we were profligate with the amount of water we used. Recent droughts combined with education saw us cut our water use in record numbers. We changed for the better. But despite that, most of us are still unaware of how much water we waste when we throw out food.

According to CSIRO data, dumping a kilogram of beef can waste the 50,000 litres it took to produce that meat. Throwing out a kilo of white rice will waste 2,385 litres. The water and energy used to produce our crops and livestock is out of sight and out of mind when we throw it in the bin.

To that end, there's a real disconnect between the food we buy and the impact that it has on the environment when we waste it. Values such as moderation and thrift have seemingly bypassed a younger generation of Australians. It's far easier to throw out food and buy more. With eyes bigger than our bellies, too many of us fall prey to 'two for one' deals and supersize offers. The result? More discarded food.

How do we solve the problem?

So what's the solution? Despite the popularity of cooking shows, there is still a poor understanding among Australians of how to store, purchase and prepare food.

Whether we like it or not, the price of petrol and the cost of living will continue to rise. One simple way to offset this increase is to become 'foodwise' and save money. When it comes to food shopping, the first rule is to get a lot smarter about what you buy and when you buy it.

Eradicating bad shopping habits is crucial. Planning for what you're going to eat for the week ahead is the first place to start. Writing a shopping list that takes into account the existing food in your pantry or fridge is essential if you're only going to buy what you need. Thinking twice about 'two for one' offers is also vital and don't go food shopping when you're hungry. You'll always buy more than you need.

Keeping an eye on the 'best before' and 'use by' dates in your pantry and fridge is also essential. You must always abide by 'use by' dates but lots of food can be eaten after the 'best before' tag (except for eggs - they should be thrown out when they reach their 'best before' date). Plain common sense and your eyes and nose should tell you whether it's usable or not. If it starts to wilt, you can always throw it in a soup.

Cooking extra portions for the freezer or freezing your leftovers in airtight containers saves food for another day. If you do end up with food waste, composting at home can reduce landfill and provide you with free nutrients for your garden. If you don't have a garden, get yourself a worm farm. Worms can eat their own weight in food every day and their castings are great for household plants.

It's time to get FoodWise

By now, you're hopefully aware of the scale of the problem. So how do we change?

George Bernard Shaw once said "there is no love sincerer than the love of food." He was right. We should love food. We just need to hate waste. It's vital that we change our behaviour and learn new food habits.

If we can switch to green bags and shorter showers, then surely we can learn to save food? That is why I launched Do Something's FoodWise.com.au campaign.

Wasted food is a waste of money. Eradicating the waste and being wiser with food means you'll end up saving the planet and your wallet at the same time.

From an environmental standpoint, we're currently eating ourselves out of house and home. If we don't mend our wasteful ways, we'll be eating ourselves out of an environment that can sustainably support future generations of Australians.

That's not an outcome any of us want. It's not just caring about food and saving money. It's about creating a safer future for Australia's kids. That's a responsibility we must all live up to.'

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