Comment: Government plans, companies and consumers all have a part to play in the battle against food waste, writes Mark Ross.

Today there are 800 million undernourished people in the world, yet the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that one-third of the world's food is either lost or wasted.

The New Zealand Government's recent decision to allocate $14.9 million to redirect unused food will go some way to address the issue, but there are broader challenges to address.

Food loss begins in the planted field where, without pest management, up to half of all crops can be lost to pests, diseases, and post-harvest losses. Droughts and natural disasters can also be devastating.

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The Treasury estimates that the 2007/08 and 2012/13 droughts jointly reduced New Zealand's GDP by around $4.8 billion.

Globally, droughts were responsible for 83 per cent of all global crop losses and damage in the decade up to 2016. Floods, storms, and other catastrophic events meant a loss of approximately US$96 billion (NZ$159 billion) worth of crops and livestock between 2005 and 2015.

Reduced harvests, insufficient storage, or not being able to pack and transfer goods can cause the supply chain to break down.

This can be exacerbated by restrictions in transport and supply of workers, as experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown.

All of this can lead to food shortages and fluctuations in prices.

According to the UN's food loss index, an average of 14 per cent of the world's food is lost from post-harvest till it reaches the consumer. This is due to inadequate storage, transit, or human error. These losses vary by region. In central/southern Asia, the losses are around 21 per cent. In Australia and New Zealand, they are just 6 per cent.

Crops and animals need protection from harmful pests and diseases to ensure an abundant food supply. If farmers couldn't access innovations in plant science and animal medicines, global food losses would double.

Food waste exacerbates the issue. Supermarkets often reject food because it is the wrong shape, size or colour – such as apples not being red enough.

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As supermarkets occupy a large portion of the supply chain in many countries, this waste is considerable. New Zealand supermarkets waste approximately 60,500 tonnes of food a year – equating to 160 tonnes per store per annum.

In the UK, where big retailers represent 85 per cent of the market, a reported 25 per cent of apples, 20 per cent of onions and 13 per cent of potatoes are wasted for cosmetic reasons.

Restaurants can waste up to 12 per cent of their total food spend. In a crisis, such as Covid-19 where restaurants, cafés, caterers, corporate cafeterias and farmer's markets are forced to close, farmers face a huge supply issue because there is nowhere for their highly perishable produce to go.

The response to the pandemic disrupted food supply chains and retailers, causing problems with access to food and risking further food waste.

As outlined by the Minister of Agriculture, Damien O'Connor, the food with the highest risk of being wasted are the fresh fruit and vegetables that move through non-supermarket channels (20 per cent of the supply) and 10 per cent of weekly egg production.

Finally, food is wasted in homes around the country, with kiwi households wasting an average of 86 kgs of edible food each year.

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Often this is due to households buying too much and not having time to eat it all or throwing it out because it has reached the "best-before" date, even though it is still fit for consumption.

A survey by Love Food Hate Waste NZ shows that Kiwis waste 157,389 tonnes of edible food, equal to 271 jumbo jets. At a value of about $1.17 billion, it is enough to feed the population of Dunedin for nearly three years. Instead, that food goes somewhere to rot.

To combat food waste, government plans, companies and consumers all have a part to play.

Mark Ross, chief executive of Agcarm. Photo / Supplied
Mark Ross, chief executive of Agcarm. Photo / Supplied

As part of Budget 2020, the Government allocated $14.9 million to redirect unused food.

This initiative provides funding to purchase and distribute primary produce to those in need, scale up Fruit in Schools to deliver an additional 100,000 fruit and vegetable boxes to children over 10 weeks, and develop and trial digital platforms to enable other novel solutions to connect food with consumers.

Companies like KiwiHarvest help alleviate waste by linking food that would be wasted with community groups that support people in need.

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Some other well-thought-out solutions include food sharing apps to connect neighbours to local shops so that surplus food isn't thrown away.

This approach has been adopted in more than 30 countries. Some companies, like Imperfect Foods in the United States – take surplus and "imperfect" food items from farmers, growers, and food purveyors and deliver them to customers at a discount. This initiative has saved more than 52 million kilos of food from going to waste since it began in 2015.

The actions of everybody in the production cycle, from farmers to consumers, will make the difference in global attempts to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 12, which includes halving global food waste by 2030.

Our success in achieving this goal relies on the actions of everybody in the production cycle, from farmers to consumers, and everyone in between.

If New Zealand truly embraces the power of food loss technology and food waste solutions, we will find a wealth of ways to contribute to global food security.

- Mark Ross is chief executive of Agcarm, the industry association for companies which manufacture and distribute crop protection and animal health products.

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