"If food waste was a country, it would be the third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, behind the US and China."
FAO Food Wastage Footprint Report 2013
Unfortunately food waste's impacts on the environment do not just stop at the wasted resources that went into producing the food, but the disposal of the waste has a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions as well.
The major issue with Food Waste occurs when it is disposed of into landfill. When food waste breaks down it releases methane, which is 20-30 times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide.
For every tonne of food waste that goes to land fill, the equivalence of 1.9 tonnes of CO2 is produced (in the form of methane).
The greenhouse gases produced by food waste in Australian landfill each year is equivalent to the emissions of Australia’s steel and iron ore industries combined!
One of the biggest problems with wasting anything that has been created, is that all of the resources that have gone into the production are wasted as well. The energy and fuel used on farms, the water to irrigate the crops and the arable land that has been used to grow the food all too often all goes to waste.
The amount of water that is required to grow our food varies based on the food type and how it is grown. While hydroponics are an incredibly efficient use of water, there is a lot of plant based produce that is grown out in the fields. Research shows that for every kilogram of beef, it requires around 15,000 litres of water to produce. The production of livestock and nuts are the largest consumers, while grain, sugar cane and vegetables are the lowest.
In a land that is constantly experiencing drought, 1460 gigalitres (1460 billion litres) of water is wasted each year in growing food we throw away in Australia – almost the required savings under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) puts a direct cost of the food the world wastes at over US$700 Billion at wholesale costs. This is then further extrapolated to equate to the retail equivalent of $1 trillion of food each year that the world throws away. In addition to the direct cost of food lost, another $700 billion is also thrown out in natural resources, including $172 billion in wasted water, $42 billion in cleared forest and $429 billion in related greenhouse gas costs.
The circular economy is a mindset that is increasingly gaining traction around the world where waste streams are being seen as potential resources. Instead of viewing the discarded food as a waste, using it as a resource for a secondary purpose can reduce the cost to the economy both from an emissions perspective as well as the cost benefits achieved through it's secondary use.
The Intergovernmental Agreement on Biosecurity defines Biosecurity as the management of risks to the economy, the environment and the community, of pests and diseases entering, emerging, establishing or spreading. Biosecurity is an important issue to address globally to prevent the spreading of viruses and disease. This is especially important in an island country like Australia to ensure the protection of our unique, diverse and flourishing native flora and fauna.
The major outbreak of foot and mouth disease outbreak in the UK in 2001 was traced back to a farmer feeding his pigs with improperly treated food waste. While foot and mouth disease is not dangerous to humans, the spread of the disease across the pig population resulted in an estimated cost between 20-30 Billion dollars to the UK economy.
More recently. African swine fever has been spreading across the globe at alarming rates. It is estimated that the disease has already wiped out a quarter of the world's pigs - including 50% of the Chinese pig population. African swine fever is spread when pigs come into contact with contaminated pigs, pork products, feed, ticks, and infected material such as syringes. The disease can be found in pork products if they’ve been inadequately cooked or frozen. It can also be transmitted via humans wearing contaminated clothing and boots into an area where uninfected pigs are kept, resulting in infection.
Without any processing of foodwaste to inactivate potential diseases, food waste is a potential biosecurity risk should it be inadvertently fed to livestock
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) has come to the conclusion that global food production must increase by 60% by 2050 in order to meet the demands of the growing world population. While reducing food waste is a big part of the problem, finding alternative sources of food for livestock and increasing efficiencies in food production is equally as important.
By 2050 the modelling suggests world’s population will reach 9.1 billion, 34 percent higher than today. Annual cereal production will need to rise to about 3 billion tonnes from 2.1 billion today and annual meat production will need to rise by over 200 million tonnes to reach 470 million tonnes.
While a growing population means more mouths to feed, the socioeconomic conditions are also becoming a problem. The expanding global population is getting wealthier, and richer people tend to eat more and demand food that is resource intensive to produce, particularly meat and dairy. It is expected that over time, people en mass will have to shift their diets towards more efficiently produced food, while still retaining their daily nutritional requirements.
When looking at food waste as a global problem, there are only a handful of solutions that have been implemented at a commercial scale. The solution that has had by far the most adoption from governments, councils and waste management companies is composting.
Composting biodegrades organic waste. i.e. food waste, manure, leaves, grass trimmings, paper, wood, feathers, crop residue etc., and turns it into a nutrient rich fertilizer.
It is a natural biological process, carried out under controlled aerobic conditions (requires oxygen). In this process, various microorganisms, including bacteria and fungi, break down organic matter into simpler substances. The effectiveness of the composting process is dependent upon the environmental conditions present within the composting system i.e. oxygen, temperature, moisture, material disturbance, organic matter and the size and activity of microbial populations.
Finished compost can be classified as a slow release fertilizer containing primary nutrients as well as trace minerals, humus and humic acids. Using compost improves soil porosity, drainage and aeration and moisture-holding capacity and reduces compaction.
While compost can work well as a fertilizer and it can be implemented at a commercial scale, there are some inherent problems with the process that make it a less than ideal candidate as a solution to the world’s food waste problem:
Compost as a fertilizer is a low value item. As this is the resource that is being produced from the process, the lack of value has implications for the commercial viability as a main-stream solution.
The market for selling the low value product of compost is already a saturated market which further drives down the price that compost can be sold at. When considering that only a small proportion of Australia’s food waste is currently composted, this problem will only be compounded with any more product that is on the market.
The current collection methods of the waste streams do not have a lot of control over what gets put in the bins. There have been major issues with contaminants (such as asbestos) being found in the compost end product when tested in the laboratory. In NSW, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released an order that due to contaminants, compost cannot be used to grow food. Again, this has further driven down the price that compost is sold at, making the process less commercially viable.