Comment: Examining how much food we waste could be a valuable lesson from Covid-19 lockdown, writes Dr Jacqueline Rowarth.

Thank goodness for Fonterra.

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While other countries are telling their dairy farmers to pour milk away and cut production, Fonterra (and the other dairy companies in New Zealand) are continuing to collect milk and process it into products for New Zealand and the world. Most of these products have shelf life. They can be stored in warehouses or pantries.

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In America, a report from CNN indicates that between 10 and 14 million litres of fresh milk a day are being dumped.

That is the equivalent of the entire Fonterra fleet of tankers picking up the milk and then pulling the plug. But in America it is mostly the farmers that have been told to empty their vats into the drains after all the hard work of collecting it. The emotional toll is high.

This milk used to go to schools, restaurants and other food service providers now shut because of Covid-19.

Although some companies have switched their processing to supply grocery stores instead and have given away as much as possible to food banks and other charities, there is still too much milk.

The National Milk Producers Federation and the International Dairy Food Association have asked the USDA to provide farmers with "financial incentive to reduce their supply by 10 per cent for 6 months".

They've also asked for compensation for the dairy farmers for the discarded milk "for about three months".

At the end of last week, a package of US$19billion was released, half for dairy and livestock farmers.

In Canada and the UK, the story is similar, and government support is being requested to prevent businesses collapsing and animal welfare being threatened.

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Questions should be being asked about why, given that the number of people requiring dairy products is mostly still the same as in January, (noting that the devastation to families is extreme when they lose a member; RIP the victims), the demand for dairy products has decreased.

The US calculates the decrease is by at least 10 per cent, despite an increase of 53 per cent in milk purchases at retail stores, almost 130 per cent increase in butter and over 80 per cent increase in cheese.

Wastage in the hospitality sector might be the answer, and it applies to more than dairy products.

Listen to Jamie Mackay's interview with Dr Jacqueline Rowarth on The Country below:

University of Otago researchers analysed the food waste generated by restaurants and
cafes in New Zealand in 2017/2018.

They found that 24,375 tonnes of food waste is generated per annum. Of this, 61 per cent was avoidable and 39 per cent was unavoidable, (eggshells, banana skins and bones, for instance).

Three types of waste were identified: 7 per cent spoilage, (over-purchasing of ingredients or poor stock rotation), 60 per cent preparation, (vegetable peelings, eggshells or incorrectly cooked food, including any unsold food at the end of the day), and 33 per cent plate waste, (whatever customers leave uneaten).

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The researchers calculated that dairy wastage amounted to 180 tonnes per year across the country – just in cafes and restaurants. Considerably more wastage was recorded in vegetables (6,800 tonnes), bakery (6,300 tonnes) and meat (3,200 tonnes).

Food waste is a problem. It represents effort and resources, which means money.

People tend to think of the purchase price of the food as the waste, but far more is involved - labour, energy, water, transport, consumables, paperwork and the cost of the disposal of the waste.

Dr Jacqueline Rowarth. Photo / Supplied
Dr Jacqueline Rowarth. Photo / Supplied

The Otago researchers found that for cafes and restaurants offering prepared food such as scones, sandwiches and pies, 30 per cent of the preparation waste was unsold food.

They also reported a 43 per cent difference in the amount of avoidable food waste between the least and most wasteful cafes, (with similar menus).

Multiply this wastage through the developed world, and the quantity is phenomenal.

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But across the EU, food service is estimated at only 12 per cent of the total waste, wholesale and retail accounts for 5 per cent of wastage, processing 19 per cent and production 11 per cent. Households account for over half of all food waste.

This will increase during lockdown virtually by definition because cafes and restaurants are closed. (Unless, of course, people find they are consuming less because the temptation presented by food outlets has been reduced).

The Otago researchers suggested that the large range in café food wastage gave opportunity for upskilling of staff and education about the impact of food waste. The same could be true of household waste.

Now is the opportunity to build all sorts of lessons into home schooling, not the least being cooking and pantry management.

Where do all the things in the pantry come from before they reach the supermarket? How are they grown and processed? Does chocolate milk come from brown cows? Is there a spaghetti tree? Do fish have fingers?

And then consider what New Zealand does best and be pleased that we are not going to run out of food.

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While farmers in other countries are asking for support in order to survive, New Zealand farmers are continuing their work.

If you want to support them, follow the US example. People are being asked to add extra cheese to their pizzas – luckily for New Zealanders, Fonterra makes the best mozzarella in the world.

- Dr Jacqueline Rowarth CNZM CRSNZ HFNZIAHS has been examining agri-environment and business information for several decades. The analysis and conclusions above are her own. jsrowarth@gmail.com