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Food waste is not just a question of what is thrown out

A new program broadcast by the ABC last week focused on food waste, and the first episode took a good hard look at the amount of waste that occurs - either because produce does not meet supermarket retailer or processor standards, or because consumers throw it out uneaten. However, there is also a growing amount of 'waste' occurring on farm that is much less obvious.

The program highlighted some challenging issues for the food industry, but ignored some equally important aspects of food industry 'waste'.

The "War on Waste" program initially focused on food waste, and highlighted that the modern food industry, driven by retailers interpretation or assumptions about consumer requirements, results in a high proportion of the food that is produced on Australian farms being wasted. So much so, organisations like OzHarvest retrieve some of this wasted food and provide it to those less able to afford it.

However, there is also a growing amount of  'waste' occurring on farm that is much less obvious, but probably has the potential to result in just as much cost as the more obvious waste the ABC program focused on. The 'waste' in this case is not so much food that has been produced and subsequently not used, but rather food that is not produced or additional resources that are utilised because of constraints that are progressively being imposed on more efficient farm production systems.

In this instance, it is not so much the food that is being wasted as the natural resources utilised in producing that food.

There are numerous examples of this, but perhaps the most obvious is the ban on the use of hormonal growth promotants (HGPs) in beef production being imposed by one of Australia's major supermarket retailers. There is no questioning of the fact that, for grain-fed cattle, HGPs can result in a 10-20% increase in weight-gain per kilogram of feed utilised. There is also no questioning of the fact that the use of HGPs in beef production has absolutely no human health implications, given that HGPs are indistinguishable from natural cattle hormones, and the dose rate of HGPs in beef is minuscule compared to normal level of hormones consumers ingest eating products such as eggs or cabbages. The decision to implement a HGP-free beef policy is based purely on retailer brand positioning, the result being this beef is produced using 20% more resources (in the form of cattle feed) than would otherwise be the case.

A related example is the decision by major retailers to ban cage eggs from 2018. There is no dispute about the fact that cage egg production systems are 20-30% more efficient than barn systems, and even more efficient than free-range systems. The efficiencies arise from better feed conversion ratios, as well as higher egg production and lower hen disease and mortality.  Effectively, a decision to ban cage eggs is a decision to reduce egg production efficiency by 20-30%, wasting resources such as feed and hen housing. This is reflected in the relative costs of eggs, with cage eggs priced at approximately $3 per dozen, while barn and free-range eggs are priced from $5 per dozen upwards.

Similar losses in agricultural efficiency occur each time a local council bans an intensive livestock production facility, or even imposes restrictions that prevent pen feeding of weaner calves or lambs. This loss isn't obvious to consumers, but is just as significant as the more obvious losses that occur when produce is rejected by retailers or processors, or thrown out by consumers.

Before howls of outrage are expressed by various animal welfare activists and foodies, this is not to argue that consumers should be prevented from being able to choose to buy free-range eggs or HGP-free beef. Consumers should have those choices available (and by inference be willing to pay for it). The difficulty arises when major processors and retailers enact bans on certain, usually more efficient production systems, and actually deprive consumers of choice. This is what has occurred with sow stalls in pork production, bans on HGP use in beef, and in imminent bans on cage eggs. The way that all of these decisions have been implemented has increased costs for consumers, and reduced consumer choice.

By banning these systems outright , rather than ensuring that accurate labelling systems are in place and consumers have a choice available, processors and retailers are forcing farmers to adopt less efficient production systems that increase the utilisation of natural resources such as land and water, and result in increased utilisation of feed per unit of production. The resulting waste is less obvious, but no less real than the waste that is the focus of the ABC program referred to earlier.

This post "Food waste is not just a question of what is thrown out" by Mick Keogh first appeared on the Australian Farm Institute website

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