It's hard to imagine, but about a third of all food produced in the world goes to waste between the farm and our forks, accounting for roughly 8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. So not only is food waste an issue of equity, it is a problem that will come back to bite everyone on the planet through climate change.
In Australia, a lot of the wastage occurs later in the food chain for what seem like relatively trivial issues such as produce being the wrong size or shape. Supermarkets have very strict guidelines on what they will accept, which is the cause of a huge amount of edible food going to waste. The move to sell "wonky" items has been a small nod towards changing this.
Another significant reason food gets wasted is due to overbuying at the supermarket or over-ordering while eating out. This is tricky to address as it goes against cultural expectations that when we are host to provide an abundance. However, this is leading to a lot of food ending up in our bins. In fact, about 40 per cent of our general household waste each week is made up of food.
Councils around Australia are starting to tackle this issue by introducing a "food organic, garden organic" (FOGO) service, where residents can put food scraps into their garden recycling bins. The organics are then sent to be commercially composted which can then be used to grow more food.
In Randwick, where the Council introduced a FOGO service earlier this year, general waste has already reduced by 30 per cent and about 1400 tonnes of food waste per month has been diverted away from landfill - the equivalent weight of roughly 1000 cars every month.
While FOGO is making inroads in Australia, to really tackle the problem head-on, there needs to be a focus on avoiding food waste in the first place. Research shows that avoiding food waste has about 30 times the greenhouse gas reducing impact that composting the food has.
However, the difficulty with food waste avoidance measures is that it requires us to change our shopping, cooking and eating habits. For example, we need to stop overbuying food for our pantries, cooking more than we need, and throwing out leftovers. We need to relearn habits that were normal just two generations ago and return to their planet and wallet friendly ways.
Not so long ago, we were urged to grow food to support the war effort. More recently during lockdown and while we were panic buying toilet paper, vegetable seeds flew off the shelf and became just as hard to buy, as people prepared for the worst and wanted to be self-sufficient.
At the same time, interest in community gardens surged. Usually on public land, community gardens allow people who don't have space to grow food to have their own plot of land or to grow with others. They are a great way for people to learn how to grow food in a friendly setting. It is not unusual for experienced growers to mentor or run workshops for less experienced members.
This is great news for food waste, as it is typical for people who garden and grow their own food to waste less food than people who don't. This is not surprising, as when you personally know how much effort goes into growing food, your appreciation for each morsel also grows. Often when you grow food, you start to become concerned with how the food you are putting in your mouth is grown.
Health and environmental concerns have propelled the organic industry forward with an impressive annual growth rate of about 13 per cent since 2012 and an estimated $2.6 billion annual contribution to the economy.
The challenge for the organic market has been that unless you grow it yourself, the prices can seem out of reach to the average person. To address this, there has been a rise in interest in community food buying groups. By buying together food, cooperatives and organic buyers groups can access organic food at much-reduced prices. In fact, the reduction in price can be so great that the price of organic food in these groups can be equal to, or even less than conventionally grown food from the supermarkets. An additional benefit of being part of these groups is the connection with others in your community.
There isn't a single magic bullet to tackle climate change, but FOGO, community gardens and organic buyers groups are a step in the right direction that brings community together and can have you feeling good on so many levels.
If you would like to learn more about community gardens and buying cheaper organic food in buyer's groups, there are free online workshops this week as part of the Eco Living Festival. The festival's online sustainability events will run until October 24. For more information, visit events.humanitix.com/tours/eco-living-festival-2021.
- Julian Lee is the sustainability educator at Randwick City Council.