Wealthy People Waste More Food – Expert Reaction

Press Release – Science Media Centre

Global food waste estimates are “grossly underestimated” because we haven’t been properly factoring in how much food affluent people throw out, reports a new study.

The team of Dutch researchers believe that our food waste possibly tops out at more than twice the levels previously thought. They suggest to reduce food waste around the world, we need to hone in on high income countries.

The research and a press release can be accessed here on Scimex.org. The SMC asked experts to comment on the research.

Senior Lecturer Dr Jeff Seadon, AUT, comments:

“New Zealand is in the group of affluent countries described in the report and we fit the profile described in the paper. New Zealanders, on average, waste almost 32 kg of food every year. Collectively we throw out over 157,000 tonnes of food which costs us $1.17 billion to buy. Our top three wasted foods are bread, ‘leftovers’ and citrus (oranges and mandarins). Mouldy bread and citrus and leftovers lost in the back of the fridge till they are dried out or go mouldy are not very appetising.

“The waste sector and local government realised that food waste was a significant problem and launched the Love Food, Hate Waste programme to give us alternatives to all this unused food. The results of the programme showed that there was a slight increase in those households classed as low food wasters and a large decrease in those in the high food waste category. This goes to show that the recommendation in the paper for targeted education does pay dividends.”

Associate Professor Miranda Mirosa, Department of Food Science, University of Otago, comments:

“Despite the tragically high estimates for global food waste provided by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (i.e. approximately one third of all food produced), these figures have long been considered by many food waste scholars to err on the conservative side, with numerous other groups such as the Institute of Mechanical Engineers reporting that between 30-50% of all food produced ends up as waste. This new study confirms the view that globally we have been underestimating the extent of problem.

“This study is to be commended for taking into account how affluence is linked to waste, which has been notably absent from the literature to date. The policy and practitioner implications of this study are important. In meeting our international SDG commitments, NZ would benefit from further research that provides robust food waste metrics for Aotearoa. In addition, immediate action by not just consumers but all food systems players is needed to reduce the unacceptably high levels of food currently being wasted.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Emma Sharp, School of Environment, University of Auckland, comments:

“This is an interesting overall outcome, and quite unsurprising in its main message. It corroborates with higher overall consumption rates in affluent countries. It is also supported by observations of a decrease in food waste in the UK during the period of the Global Financial Crisis as austerity measures were employed. However, despite the paper’s claim that ‘models can reasonably reproduce the results without needing extensive data from national surveys’ the overarching message does provoke an interest in more fine-grained understandings of what contributes to food waste in different locations based on differing factors.

“First of all, it’s important to disentangle the ranging detrimental effects of food waste, and the problems we’re trying to eliminate: its anaerobic decomposition in landfill contributing to methane (greenhouse gas) emissions; the significant waste of resources in food production, distribution and storage (including land, water, energy, agrichemical use, human labour). Further, there is the obvious issue of food insecurity despite the prevalence of avoidable food waste.

“With the mandate to reduce food waste taken as a whole, while the paper is helpful in its politics of making accountable the actors that they see as key contributors to the problem, there are risks in homogenising the accountability to affluent countries. We shouldn’t dismiss particularities of: significant socio-economic inequity in ‘affluent’ countries (New Zealand included); the distribution of affluence in transitioning economies and lower-income countries; and culturally and socially-influenced or infrastructurally-determined methods of food procurement, preparation, storage, and disposal. Recent national food waste audits (e.g. Waste Not Consulting 2015) do not include income parameters, but make some comment on household size and makeup.

“The paper’s suggestion of the focus for reducing high food waste levels in high-income countries in order to achieve low global food waste, is a pragmatic one. It’s suggestive of policy and regulation employed through formal governance as more easily implemented, measured and monitored, in order to be able to see local and global improvement. Unacknowledged here though are informal methods of management that divert food waste from landfill. In fact, the report notes that it relies on the accuracy of FAO’s data, which is unlikely to record things like food from subsistence farming in low-income countries. I would add, that it is unlikely to record data from the informal sector of high-income countries that include food waste organisations that redistribute food, or informal exchanges or uses of food ‘waste’ within communities, which are also regular behaviours with cumulative effects.”

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