With the aim of “developing a narrative” of a sustainable food system, delegates at the 2nd National Sustainable Food Summit engaged in small-group discussions focusing on a specific aspect of the food chain. WNIFT&M reports back from the ‘Closing the Loop on Food Waste’ discussion group.
Processing, packaging and poo: these were just some of the issues the Closing the Loop on Food Waste discussion group explored. Comprising industry, retail, charity and media representatives, the group offered a range of perspectives on the topic and offered up some innovative potential solutions.
Waste not, want not
Given that we have, as Julian Cribb so eloquently puts it, “the dubious distinction of being the first generation in the whole of human history to waste nearly half our food,” a large part of the discussion on how to close the food loop focused on reducing food waste in all areas of food production and consumption.
Key to this discussion was a recognition that we need to change the ‘language’ of waste in order to change perceptions of it. Some participants thought that promoting an understanding of waste as a resource, rather than a cost or a loss to companies, might alter consumer and industry practices.
Some suggestions for repurposing waste included using methane from landfill as a source of energy, turning food products that are past use-by dates into animal feed and relaxing weight range restrictions on packaged foods so that products that are only slight under- or overweight do not need to be disposed of.
The difficulty of repurposing snack foods that are packaged in small quantities was raised, with one delegate highlighting the amount of energy required to remove snack packaging in order to compost it or turn it into animal feed. One solution that was suggested was a more widespread use of biodegradable, and particularly compostable, packaging to facilitate easier composting of snack and other packaged foods. An overall reduction in packaging was also suggested, with more food available to purchase by weight or volume, rather than in prepackaged form.
Waste occurs at all points along the food cycle, not least of all the very end of it. There is one significant aspect of the food cycle that is rarely discussed and yet offers a rich, untapped source of energy: human waste. While some of us may feel squeamish at the thought of using human excrement to generate power, there’s no denying that it’s a source of renewable energy that is in abundance and will continue to be as the human population rises. Capitalising on the end product of what we eat could be an ideal way to truly close the food loop.
Fruit and vegetables come in a wide range of sizes, shapes and colours - yet consumers and retailers tend to be quite fussy about the particular size, shape and colour of the produce they purchase. As a result, a great deal of fruit and vegetable matter is disposed of on-farm, before it even reaches the marketplace. Most of this produce is perfectly edible, but is likely to be passed over in favour of ‘better-looking’ produce.
If consumers and retailers were more willing to accept fruit and vegetables that do not conform to rigid guidelines on size, shape and colour, food waste could be reduced at the very start of the food chain. To encourage consumers to change their purchasing habits, it was suggested that perhaps non-standard produce could be priced slightly lower than standard. If consumers started buying the cheaper non-standard produce and found that it was on par with standard produce in terms of taste and nutritional value, this might lead to a change in purchasing habits, resulting in less food waste at the farm gate.
The National Sustainable Food Summit featured a presentation from the NSW Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Kathy Giunta on their current project: Love Food Hate Waste. The program is aimed at educating consumers on ways to reduce food waste at the household level, giving tips on how to prepare and store food to prevent wastage, as well as making consumers aware of just how much food is wasted in Australian households.
Delegates in the Closing the Loop on Food Waste group tended to see education as key to changing attitudes towards food waste, particularly at the consumer level. But suggestions for encouraging change in the production, processing and retail sectors were sparse.
Solutions to close the food loop will only be taken up by industry and consumers if there is an incentive to change behaviour. Participants in the Closing the Loop on Food Waste group discussed the best way to encourage change, particularly with respect to food waste. Financial incentives were a recurring suggestion, but participants were undecided as to whether punishment or reward is the best approach.
Do we make it more expensive to do the wrong thing? Or make it cheaper to do the right thing? Ultimately, this question comes down to what approach works best: do we penalise bad behaviour or reward good behaviour?