National food plan seeking input on waste

The Australian Government is developing a National Food Plan to cover different aspects of Australia’s food chain and industry.

Food waste is acknowledged as an issue in the recently-released paper to inform the development of a national food plan. A firm evidence base from which to assess global food waste is lacking, according to the paper. There is, therefore, no consensus on the proportion of global food production currently lost but estimates range between 10 and 50%.

The amount of food thrown away is a national and global problem. Of most concern to stakeholders is the effect waste food has on generation of greenhouse gas emissions, such as methane and carbon dioxide. However, concerns are also growing about the economic and environmental viability of existing waste food disposal systems, as well as interest in waste food as a resource input to agriculture.

In the UK, the Waste Resources and Action Programme (WRAP) estimated that about one third of food purchased is thrown away. And, if that food waste was eradicated it would be equivalent to taking one in five cars off the road.

Research by The Australia Institute shows that Australian households throw away about $5.2 billion worth of food every year, or around $616 worth per household. This includes $1.1 billion of fruit and vegetables but does not account for the amount of food disposed of by supermarkets and restaurants.

One question the government is asking as part of its consultation process is, “What (if any) contribution could action on food waste make to improving the sustainability of Australian food supply chains?”

According to the Waste Management Association of Australia’s (WMAA) Ron Wainberg, the answer is “a lot…it could make a lot of difference if we manage food waste better and recover the food waste through separate collections instead of mixed waste streams. You can avoid the greenhouse gas emissions from disposal in landfill and you can recycle the nutrients and that feeds directly into sustainability.

“Food waste is the single biggest part of the waste stream that will directly impact on greenhouse gas emissions,” said Wainberg.

The Gillard Government announced during the election that it would develop a National Food Plan. Now, stakeholders with an interest in food waste issues are encouraged to read the issues paper and make a submission.

Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Joe Ludwig, said in a release, “From the production stages of our food, through to processing, purchasing and the consumption of food, people will be able to have their say on issues confronting our food sector now and into the future.

“Developing a National Food Plan gives us an opportunity to talk about our collective vision for Australia’s food sector and how to ensure its continued success,”

Another driver is The National Waste Policy: less waste, more resources, agreed by governments in November 2009. It aims to avoid the generation of waste; reduce the amount of waste for disposal; manage waste as a resource and ensure that waste treatment, disposal, recovery and re use is undertaken in a safe, scientific and environmentally sound manner. This includes addressing food waste, within household and commercial and industrial waste streams, as an opportunity for reduced costs and lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions through the food chain.

According to the FoodWise campaign by the action group Do Something!, when someone throws food out they are also throwing out the resources it took to get that food all the way from the ‘paddock to the plate.’ That includes all elements of production, processing, storage, refrigeration, transportation and cooking.

Using ‘paddock to plate’ calculations, WRAP in the UK estimate that one ton of food waste generates 3.8 tons of CO2 equivalent emissions. Using the same figures, food waste in Australia is responsible for 11.4 million tons of CO2 equivalent emissions every year.

Managing food waste better is also cheaper for consumers however often “you’re talking about relatively small amounts of money”, said Wainberg who said people don’t always make a connection between the half a cauliflower they are throwing out and the money they are essentially putting in the bin.

A FoodWise national poll of more than 1,000 people showed that 70% of respondents believe the government should set targets to reduce the amount of food that is wasted every year.

What it also showed was that eight in ten Australians surveyed are unaware that we are throwing away 3 million tonnes of food. And, more than two thirds of Australians are unaware that food rotting in landfill gives off methane.

Recent composting programs have shown that if people are involved in the recycling process (in this case their organic waste to compost), this can contribute to a conceptual shift occurring in which ‘waste’ begins to be thought of differently.

This can be achieved by developing a full cycle process (from soil to food to consumer to compost to soil) that challenges the concept of ‘waste’, like that of the Groundswell trials in regional NSW.

“Such full cycle activities are key to sustainable development and align closely with closed-cycle urban ecology, that is cities are seen as a living eco-system needing closed-loop management cycles,” according to the report produced on Groundswell.

“The answer is sustained education programs,” said Wainberg, “It’s not good enough to have a program, do some seminars with local government and put a few ads in the local paper. It requires a sustained and highly visible long term campaign analogous to ‘Life Be In It’”.

The subject of food waste is treated in the issues paper under the theme of environmental performance (of the food supply chain).

It said “many food businesses are responding to consumers wanting to know how their food was grown, manufactured, transported and retailed so they can make food consumption choices based on environmental impact”.

According to the Australian Food and Grocery Council, 76% of their member companies have a formal policy covering the environment, 49% have put environmental management systems in place and 71% employed a full-time environmental manager.

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