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If you’ve guiltily tossed out food that sat untouched in your fridge until it became inedible, you are not alone. Australians throw out about $5.2 billion worth of food every year, with the average household wasting around $600 worth of food each year, according to a report released by The Australia Institute (TAI) in November 2009, based on a national survey of over 1,600 households.
A report released by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in May this year estimated that roughly a third of all food produced for human consumption worldwide – about 1.3 billion tonnes – is lost or wasted somewhere along the food supply chain.
Embroiled in this huge food loss is the wastage of the vast energy and water resources that go into food production, not to mention the generation of significant greenhouse gas emissions. Not-for-profit organisation OzHarvest, a self-described food rescue service, points out that it takes 500 litres of water to produce a kilo of potatoes; more than 2,000 litres for a kilogram of white rice; and 50,000 litres for each kilogram of beef.
And while the world produced well in excess of the minimum nutrition needed to sustain the entire human population, the FAO estimated that 925 million people remained undernourished in 2010.
Where the waste occurs
In developing nations, food waste is more likely to occur in the early and middle stages of the food supply chain because of inefficient harvesting techniques and limited storage, cooling and transport facilities, although relatively little food is wasted at the consumer level.
In higher-income countries, some food is wasted due to over-rigorous food quality standards which reject otherwise good food because of imperfections in shape or appearance, but the FAO report attributes most waste to poor planning and “the careless attitude of those consumers who can afford to waste food”.
TAI researcher Richard Denniss is quick to agree with the FAO assessment. “We continue to waste an enormous amount of food and, even though people feel guilty about it, the amount they waste doesn’t correlate to their stated desire to protect the environment,” he says.
The TAI report found that those who waste the most food tend to be those with higher incomes, and those who live by themselves. Demographic projections predict the number of one-person households in Australia will increase by between 70 and 90 per cent in the next 25 years. Food wastage is likely to balloon as a result, unless we change our habits.
Why we waste food
Long-standing, ingrained patterns of behaviour – in particular, the amount of thought we put into food planning and preparation – are the main determinants of food waste, says Denniss. His research showed that neither the levels of guilt people reported feeling when throwing out food, nor the levels of concern they report about the environment, have any impact on the amount of food that a household might waste.
Survey respondents had one of two approaches to reducing food waste; the first was to purchase only food that would be eaten, the second to plan meals around food they already have. But their behaviour contradicted their approaches. While householders who think that buying only food that will be eaten is the best way to reduce food waste are more likely to use a shopping list, “many of these respondents also agreed that they often buy things on the spur of the moment,” the report found.
Meanwhile, while householders who believed in planning meals around food they already had reported they were likely to try to incorporate leftovers into a meal, “many of these respondents said that they often plan meals based on what they want to eat rather than around the food that they already have.” The TAI report showed that households whose behaviour was most likely to result in less food waste had reported financial concerns as their strongest motivator.
“Things like planning your meals, taking a list when you shop for food and bringing your own bag to the shops makes an impact on the amount of food you waste,” Denniss says.
He also blames easily available plastic bags supplied by retailers for free, for encouraging many of our wasteful impulse purchases. “Why else would shopping centre retailers be so determined to give plastic bags away for free when they sell them in aisle five?” The act of taking a bag to the shops means that you need to have a clear picture in your head of what you are going to purchase – and how much, Denniss says. “The easiest way to avoid wasteful consumption is to become a conscious consumer.”