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Shots fired in Australia’s war on food waste

Australia’s first recycled supermarket is giving food destined for landfills a second chance, as the government embarks on a major push to cut down on waste costing the economy Aus$20 billion (US$15 billion) a year.

The outlet run by food rescue organisation OzHarvest in Sydney takes surplus products normally thrown out by major supermarkets, airlines and other suppliers, and gives them away for free.

It is an attempt to tackle the mounting waste problem in Australia, home to 24 million people, where consumers toss out some 20 percent of food they buy with more than four million tonnes ending up as rubbish each year.

“It is simply remarkable that in prosperous, modern-day Australia we produce enough food to feed 60 million people a year but every month more than 600,000 people — one-third of them children — seek food relief from relevant charities,” Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg said in April.

The government is drawing up an ambitious plan to halve food waste by 2030 and is convening a national summit later this year involving the private sector and non-profit organisations.

Globally, one-third of food produced for humans — about 1.3 billion tonnes costing around US$1 trillion — is lost or wasted annually, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Such wastage is particularly conspicuous in retail, where “large quantities” of food are thrown away “due to quality standards that over-emphasise appearance”, the UN body added.

That’s where supermarkets like OzHarvest come in, said founder Ronni Kahn, a leading voice in Australia‘s food rescue community, who hopes the pop-up store will raise awareness about sustainable living.

Besides the needy, “there are people (at the supermarket) who want to take part in this sharing economy… taking produce and understanding why this produce was rejected, why is this here, why is this surplus”, she told AFP as she pointed to bread donated by a bakery.

Long queues have formed outside the shop since it opened in late April, with the unemployed, single mothers, and students among those who leave with bulging bags of groceries.

– Tip of the waste iceberg –

What we eat or throw away is just the tip of the iceberg in the production process, conservation experts say, with huge amounts of resources such as fertilisers, fuel, land and water used to grow and package food.

“When food’s wasted, and all of those resources are wasted as well, what’s incumbent upon us is to make the most of the food that we produce in those instances, rather than producing more and more,” said Marcus Godinho of charity FareShare.

FareShare tackles waste by cooking large quantities of food that farmers and manufacturers struggle to offload, or which is due to expire, in a 500-square-metre (5,400-square-foot) kitchen in Melbourne before freezing and storing it for distribution to the disadvantaged at a later date.

Also reducing waste at a wholesale level is Yume, an online platform connecting suppliers and buyers for hard-to-sell surplus produce at significantly discounted prices, chief Katy Barfield said.

“It (the unwanted food) can be cancelled orders, it can be mislabelled, it can be brand refresh, it can be export orders that get cancelled, it can be specifications… that are not what the retailers want,” Melbourne-based Barfield told AFP.

Barfield, who previously headed up food rescue charity SecondBite, wants to take the platform global as she develops it to handle millions of transactions.

“Because it’s a piece of technology, there are no barriers to scaling it,” she said.

With Canberra stepping into the fray, waste warriors are optimistic that incentives including tax breaks could reduce excess in supply chains and encourage businesses to keep surplus food still fit for consumption away from landfills.

Even public institutions such as schools, hospitals and prisons could make their procurement of food more sustainable by buying surplus products through platforms like Yume, Barfield added.

“It would save food going to waste, it would be good for the environment, it would be very good for the taxpayers’ pockets because we would be paying less for the food, and I think it’s a win, win, win,” she said.

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