Waking up to food waste
World Environment Day is celebrated annually on June 5 to raise global awareness of the need to take positive environmental action. This year’s theme was “Think.Eat.Save”, as the amount of food wasted all over the world is growing, while millions of people go to bed hungry every day. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), every year 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted, the equivalent to the same amount produced in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. In Australia alone, 4 million tons ($8 billion worth) of food per year is thrown out, most of which ends up in landfill. Australians waste about 20 per cent of the food they buy.
Jon Dee, the 2010 NSW Australian of the Year, is the Founder and Managing Director of the advocacy organisation Do Something! In order to raise awareness and try to find solutions to curb this alarming trend, Jon Dee has launched the campaign “Foodwise”. The Foodwise website (www.foodwise.com.au) contains a lot of information to improve our shopping behaviours, identify the situations when we’re most likely to buy food we don’t need and tips to reduce food waste. There are also recipes from well-known chefs like Neil Perry, Kylie Kwong and Maggie Beer. The recipes make use of scraps and leftovers so that we might make the most of the food we buy.
On the home front, we waste a lot of food due to impulse buying and poor planning, as well as inadequate storage of food, which makes the food go bad faster than it should. Dee evokes his grandmother who used up everything in the pantry, fridge and freezer. She planned meals ahead for the week and wrote shopping lists with only the ingredients needed for those meals: “If we did that, we would save hundreds of dollars a year.” There is also still a lot of confusion over “best by” and “use by” dates. Dee explains that “best before” or “best by” are just recommendations: “On that day [the ‘best before’ date], if it feels right and smells right, then it is right, you can still carry on using it.”
But a worrying aspect of food waste is happening even before the products reach the supermarket shelves, purely because they don’t meet supermarkets’ aesthetic standards. Jon Dee evokes the case of a banana farm in Queensland, where “a third of the crop doesn’t make it past the farm gates or gets chopped up and put back into soil, because the shape of the banana is not right or they’re too small, or they’ve got minor blemishes. And instead of thinking, how can that third of banana crop be turned into products so we can distribute it to hungry Australians, using food charities, we just throw them away, and that should not be allowed to happen!”
Dee has been calling on federal and state governments to launch a national food audit, to find out how much food is actually being wasted, at the farm, in food businesses, and in supermarkets: “We need to look at where the problems are, and find solutions to get high-quality food to food charities, and make it into products that can get distributed to Australians who can’t afford quality food.”
Another big environmental issue is the big amount of resources used by meat production, and that is why Foodwise launched the “Meat-free Mondays” campaign, to encourage the public to look at their meat consumption and try to decrease it. Dee says the level of meat consumption, compared to the rapidly increasing global population, is simply unsustainable: “Meat uses up so much land, water and other resources, we cannot continue this growth in meat consumption, because environmentally, we simply can’t cope with that influx, it’s a fact of life.” But it’s not just environmental reasons that motivate him to support that cause: “From a health point of view alone, take the environment out of this for a second, people need to understand that we need to eat more vegetables. And Australians not eating enough vegetables is a really big problem.”
Does Dee feel optimistic about seeing some changes? “The simple fact is we don’t have a choice. It’s not a matter of whether I feel optimistic or not: if we don’t resolve the problem, then hundreds of millions of people will continue to go to bed hungry, because we’ll have two billion extra people on the planet, and a lot more people will die every day of hunger and we have an obligation to people throughout the world to resolve the problem. From the point of view of food security, it is without doubt the single most important environmental issue that we currently face, and it’s only now that we are waking up to it, and the sooner we wake up to it, the better.”