My interest in sustainable food began over 50 years ago, after I first read Frances Moore Lappe’s book Diet for a Small Planet. At the time, some people thought the book was extreme. (I’ll discuss Moore Lappe’s promotion of vegetarian diet in the next issue of the Kangaroo Valley Voice.)
My interest in sustainable foods expanded with the work of Professor Joan Gussow, a humble but brilliant American environmentalist (also a prolific gardener), who espoused the idea of “eat locally, think globally”. This was way ahead of the many researchers who have now come to concentrate on planetary health and the need for some to change the way they eat so others can have healthier diets. Michael Pollan, the well-known author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma said “Once in a while, I think I’ve had an original thought, then I think and read around and realise Joan said it first.”
Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University in London, is another whose ideas have influenced many of us. He has led the debate on the need to establish food systems that suit the particular environment where people live, promoting health and social justice for citizens.
Like Tim, I wish we could use the term ‘citizen’ rather than ‘consumer’. A citizen has political rights and responsibilities whereas consumers play a more passive role, allowing others to decide what they need. The processed food industry sticks rigidly with the term ‘consumers’.
Lang and others also pushed Gussow’s ideas about local foods. So did the Consumers’ Association (now Choice) when they publicised the absurdity of truckloads of chickens going from Melbourne to feed people in Brisbane passing truckloads of chickens being taken from Brisbane to feed people in Melbourne.
Many of the various aspects of sustainable food supplies are difficult to fix, especially for many Australian farmers. But the issue where we can all help is possibly the easiest to fix. It’s food waste.
Food waste happens on farms, in transport and food storage, in supermarkets, cafés, restaurants, hospitals and institutions – and in our homes. Wasting food involves resources of land, water, soil and fertilisers, fuel, labour, time and money. And almost every aspect of food waste increases carbon dioxide emissions and thus contributes to climate change.
Globally, approximately 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted each year – equal to about a third of all food produced. Enough food is currently produced to feed everyone in the world, including the millions who go to bed hungry and those who die of starvation. If we could prevent food waste, we would not only wipe out starvation, but have enough to feed the United Nations estimated peak population of over 10 billion people.
Australia is certainly not immune to food waste. Each year, the amount of food wasted in Australia totals 7.6 million tonnes. About 70% of that is perfectly edible and over 40% comes from homes.
As well as food waste on farms, in transport and storage, fresh produce is often wasted because it doesn’t meet some purchasers’ specific appearance requirements. Supermarkets have been prime culprits in this.
Supermarkets can help
After years of lobbying by many of us, some supermarkets and produce markets have finally taken this to heart by selling what were once called ‘ugly’ products. Labelled under banners such as the ‘Odd Bunch’, ‘Imperfect’ or ‘Imperfect picks’, these products may not fulfil previous appearance requirements, but they’re just as nutritious. They are generally sold at a lower price than their ‘better-looking’ family members, but that is an advantage for customers, and while it may give farmers a lower return, they do get something. Best of all, it beats unnecessary food waste.
Supermarkets have also moved to contribute foods to food banks and charities, and in some cases fresh fruits and vegetables that might be squashed or not quite up to scratch are available to farmers as feed for some animals.
In the home, food waste occurs because we buy too much, cook too much or simply forget or fail to use what is in the fridge or pantry. I’ve written before about ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ food labels.
‘Best before’ doesn’t mean you can’t eat the food after that date. It’s related to quality not safety. Some foods will be perfectly edible years after such labels might indicate, as long as their packaging is not damaged. Canned foods, dry foods such as pasta, rice or other grains and legumes can last for years if they’re stored safely with their colour, flavour, texture and taste undiminished. Some frozen foods can lose some quality, but many that are kept frozen will be fine much longer than their ‘Best before’ label indicates.
Any food that can last longer than two years doesn’t need to carry a ‘Best before’ label. Many companies still use these labels – which a cynic may say will encourage people (and supermarkets) to throw away foods past the printed date and buy fresh supplies. It’s always wise to store foods so you know which are the oldest, but the chances are that most will be fine to consume after the stated date. Correct storage can reduce food waste – and also save you money.
If there’s no ‘Best before’ or ‘Use by’ date, you will find that Australian foods will be marked with a four digit (or preferably five-digit) code. This is needed in case a food needs to be traced due to some contaminant that may be discovered years later. The first number (or the first two numbers) indicates the last digit in the year and the remaining numbers indicate the day in the calendar the food was packaged, So a food packaged on 30 June 2023 would have a number of 3181 (the 3 represents the last digit in the year 2023 and the 181 is because the 30th of June is the 181st day of the year).
Foods with a ‘Best before’ label can legally be sold as long as they’re not damaged, deteriorated or perished. By contrast, it’s illegal for any shop to sell foods past their ‘Use by’ date. This is a matter of safety. You may not be able to see bacteria in sliced meats or some dairy products but, if present, they could cause serious health problems.
In the home
Reduce waste by:
- Good storage, give older products front row positions.
- Check what you need before you go shopping. Use a list and buy only quantities that you are likely to use.
- Serve portions of food that are appropriate. Fussy eaters may do better if served smaller quantities. Young children may need to taste a food up to 10 times before they accept it. It also helps if they see others enjoying the food.
- Store leftovers appropriately. Label them and freeze where appropriate.
- Look for ways to use leftovers. A recent study gave students the task of checking leftovers and creating recipes to use them. They did well and subsequently wasted far less food.
- Compost inedible parts of food. If you have a garden, compost or a worm farm are top ideas. If you don’t, check if the Kangaroo Valley Community Garden would like to help. Go to one of the Shoalhaven Council compost workshops.
Dr Rosemary Stanton OAM