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Food waste: from social crisis to economic opportunity

How can Australian households waste 20 percent of the food they buy, while simultaneously 600,000 people each month seek food relief from charities?

That vexed question was at the heart of discussions which took place in Melbourne this week between the Federal Government, and key industry and community leaders.                                                      

The discussions follow a commitment by the Federal Government – supported by the National Farmers’ Federation – to halve food waste in Australia by 2030. This isn’t just about retail and household waste. It looks right across the supply chain: from crop losses; to produce which doesn’t meet market specifications; spillage in transport and handling; and processing byproducts and inefficiencies.

All told, estimates put the annual cost of food waste in Australia at $20 billion. At the farm gate, this is a lost opportunity of about $2.9 billion (or 5% of farm gate output). This problem is most pronounced in our horticulture sector, which could realise significant gains if we tackle waste effectively.

The cost is also significant from an environmental standpoint. Growing, transporting and manufacturing food which is destined for landfill is a significant waste of water and a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

At a global scale, wasted food uses 250 gigalitres of fresh water. And if it were a country, food waste would be the third largest emitter on earth, behind China and the USA.

But these staggering statistics of waste and abundance don’t align with the tragedy of food insecurity here in Australia. We’re seeing a growing number of Australians (one third of them children) rely on food charities to get their daily food intake, as income inequality widens and household costs increase. According to FoodBank Australia, those in our regional communities are 11% more likely to need this kind of assistance.

While it is absurd that in a nation as rich and blessed as Australia, we are sending food to landfill while some of us go hungry, basic maths dictates that the problem is solvable with the right emphasis and collaboration.

That is why we’re enthused by the Federal Government’s focus on this issue. Discussions in Melbourne this week were the starting point for development of a National Food Waste Strategy which will be released next year. Those who participated (ranging from charities, to industry, academia and government) had a range of practical solutions to tackle the problem – from new collaborative frameworks, to tax incentives and new data collection initiatives. While it might sound high level, rest assured those involved are looking at this through a highly pragmatic lens.

Right now, food waste and insecurity are immense environmental and social problems in Australia. But the opportunity exists to transform this into an economic opportunity for the farm sector, and generate increased returns based on better utilisation of our produce.

At the NFF, we’re committed to the challenge and look forward to playing an active role in the strategy going forward.

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