Who will step up?
This is the third time I have sat down to write this article, the first two versions were deemed too controversial. My issue is: the food system is broken. There are too many competing interests, no universal governance, poor levels of food literacy and understanding and, ultimately, consumers and the planet are paying the price. There is no nice way to say it.
I have been working in food systems for a long time and have been privileged to be involved with an international standard setting organisation (United States Pharmacopeial Convention, USP), national science body (Institute of Environmental and Scientific Research, ESR), have spoken on food integrity for over 15 years - attending conferences and events around the world and have run private companies in the food integrity space. I am a food producer, and I continue to eat. All-in-all, I have a pretty good understanding of food as a system. While some advances have been made in dealing with food borne illness or setting standards for food ingredients (a big shout out to the organisations listed, above) it seems to be an uphill battle to fix this broken system.
The crux of the matter is around governance; more specifically, everyone has an interest in the food system yet no-one is actually responsible. This translates to good work being done in parts of the food production process that doesn’t necessarily continue along the supply chain. As an example we need to look no further than food waste.
While awareness has increased about food wastage we continue to produce food to be wasted. As an example here, think of high value crops for which there are currently no viable products that can be made from their waste (for example, cherries). Because we ‘like’ large and crisp cherries this makes them vulnerable to cracking if it rains, cracked cherries have virtually no shelf-life (as mould and bacteria love a moist, sweet environment) and, therefore these become waste.
As consumers we have come to expect fruit and produce that looks perfect. This is one of the reasons, in spite of considerable education campaigns to teach us otherwise, that in NZ around 13 kg of food is wasted per person, per year at the retail service level (around 63 thousand tonnes). Add to that each one of us wastes around 61 kg of food per year in the home. These latest data come from the UN Food Waste Index 2021. Across the Tasman it is even worse with Australians wasting an estimated 102 kg per person / per year.
Of course, there are a number of reasons why food is wasted. Climate change impacts our ability to harvest food in a timely manner or to produce food, food recalls (for whatever reason) result in food being dumped, global pandemics prevent people from harvesting. Ironically, while climate impacts on the ability to produce food, food waste impacts on climate change - according to Love Food Hate Waste, “if food waste was a country, it would be the third largest producer of carbon emissions behind China and the United States”. Is anyone ‘responsible’ for food waste? No.
A loose form of governance exists around food waste through the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). These international governance goals have a long and convoluted history. It’s fair to say they are not built on overwhelming success but are well intentioned. SDG 12 is to “Ensure Sustainable Consumption and Production Patterns”, within this the aim is to halve the per capita global food waste at the consumer and retail level. How are we doing? It is hard to tell, however data from the NZ National Waste Audit (2015) estimated that we wasted 148kg per household per year. Taking these two measurements together - the 2015 audit and the 2021 estimate it looks like we have increased the amount of food wasted. It would be good to see longitudinal data to really measure any change.
While data will provide us with insight to how we are tracking as a country it does not change our individual behaviours, nor does it provide incentives for food producers or retailers to address waste reduction. Of course, this is complicated - you don’t need to look further than fruit dropping off trees because of a lack of pickers, but I can’t help but think that a bit of leadership is required. Who will step up?
About the Author
Helen Darling has a PhD in Public Health and has been working in food systems for some time. She is co-founder of FoodTruths.org, a New Zealand start-up that is reimagining food systems for the benefit of people and the planet.