About a third of the food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. That represents a major squandering of resources, including land, water, energy, fertilisers, labour and capital. The reasons for this profligacy vary, but in countries such as New Zealand, consumer behaviour is a big factor. Food that could easily be used is routinely thrown out, a situation compounded by the failure to put the wasted produce to good use. The cost of this discarded food has been estimated at $458 for each New Zealand household each year.
That waste makes no sense on any level. It is particularly regrettable in a country whose economy is so strongly tied to food production. The pursuit of a clean green image also suggests we should be a leader in reducing food waste. Unfortunately, many of the best ideas are coming from the other side of the world. One to emerge this week was the European Union's proposal to scrap "best-before" labels on a range of products that typically remain in pantries for a long time. These include dry pasta, coffee, rice, jams and pickles.
The pursuit of a clean green image also suggests we should be a leader in reducing food waste. Unfortunately, many of the best ideas are coming from the other side of the world.
In New Zealand, all packaged food items with a shelf life of less than two years must have a best-before or use-by date. This is apt to cause confusion, and the throwing away of food that, in many cases, could be eaten months or even years after the best before date. The best-before label has nothing to do with safety; it refers only to quality in terms of factors such as freshness and texture after that date. It should be left to consumers to assess whether a product is still usable or has gone off. Yet the policy of some stores denies that and serves only to increase the amount of wasted food.
These businesses decline to sell products after their best-before dates and bin them, effectively equating that tag with a use-by date. The two are totally different. For good reason, it is illegal to sell a product after a use by date has been reached. Items past their best-before date are, however, able to be sold. Retailers thus share some responsibility for food waste, even if unintentionally through pricing policies, such as buy one, get one free, which may lead to excessive purchasing.
If it would be futile to try to check such practices, there is every reason to encourage greater understanding of the safety of food that has passed its best-before date. Much could also be done to ensure discarded produce does not end up in barren landfills. It is an anomaly that while householders are accustomed to recycling glass, plastics and paper, food waste has been largely disregarded. Home composting has waned, and few councils provide a collection service for food scraps.
It is encouraging that the Auckland Council has begun a three-month trial of 2000 homes on the North Shore. Residents have received two special bins for the waste, which is converted to compost. The first collection, in Northcote Central, was supported by 40 per cent of householders, shy of the council's 60 per cent target. That, nonetheless, indicates a good level of awareness.
Clearly, we know that wasting so much food makes no sense. It is time to do something about it.