Food ending up in the bin is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to food waste. That’s one of the key messages from our first report in the food waste series, Food waste: A global and local problem, which we are releasing today.

While the most obvious impact of food waste is food taking up space in landfills and releasing greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, it’s essential to take a whole-of-life view to truly understand the impacts of food waste. When food goes to waste, all the resources expended throughout the food supply chain are also wasted, including the labour, energy, productive land, and water required to produce, process, distribute, market, and prepare it. We also need to think of wasted food as a missed opportunity to nourish people, and recognise it as an economic cost to consumers and businesses.

While preparing this introductory report in the food waste series, we found that there’s limited data on food waste in Aotearoa – much more needs to be gathered to understand the magnitude of the problem. We also learnt about a wide array of government workstreams, NGO initiatives and charitable and private sector projects that are focused on different aspects of the food waste puzzle. It’s heartening to see so much interest in combatting food waste, and we plan to provide an evidence base to underpin systems thinking and support positive change.

Juliet chatting to Mike Fogarty over a compost heap at the Waiheke Resources Trust.

Our first report covers the current state of food waste in Aotearoa and sets the scene for later reports, which will include recommendations. Key messages are copied below – but for full details, click through to the full report.

  • Combatting food waste in Aotearoa has scope to deliver environmental, social, and economic benefits.
      • Wasting food means accruing all the environmental harms and expending the often limited resources associated with food systems without realising the benefits of nourishing the growing global population. Land and water use, soil and water contamination, energy use, and greenhouse gas emissions throughout the food lifecycle and during decomposition are among the environmental costs.
      • From a social perspective, wasting quality surplus food represents a missed opportunity to nourish people, which is particularly problematic given the number of people experiencing food insecurity globally and in Aotearoa.
      • It takes financial resources to produce, process, manufacture, distribute, store, market, and buy food, so when food is wasted, people throughout the food system stand to lose economically. The financial costs of food waste may be buried, transferred, or unidentified by players in the food system, but are nonetheless real.
  • While Aotearoa doesn’t have a robust food waste baseline, we know that households produce around 157,000 tonnes of avoidable food waste per year, and it is likely that hundreds of thousands of tonnes of food are wasted at other stages of the food supply chain. More data is needed to fully understand the scale of the problem and to design targeted interventions. To support an understanding of the problem and enable reduction targets to be set and monitored, the Ministry for the Environment is establishing a national definition of food waste and intends to calculate a national food waste baseline.
  • The food recovery hierarchy will guide the OPMCSA food waste project, with prevention of food waste prioritised, as this is generally where the most environment, social, and economic benefit can be delivered. Failing prevention, any quality, safe, edible food or food components should be rescued or upcycled for human consumption. Only when food isn’t fit for human consumption should diversion interventions lower in the food recovery hierarchy be pursued – such as use as animal feed, material recycling, nutrient recovery, and energy recovery, typically in that order. Disposal should be the last resort, but ideally avoided.
  • Circular economy thinking, which is beginning to be embraced by the private sector and the New Zealand government, will also guide our project. Underpinning a circular economy approach is a shift away from the take-make-use-waste approach to resource use, towards a system where waste is designed out, products and materials are kept in use for as long as possible, and natural systems are regenerated.
  • Long before the development of the food recovery hierarchy and circular economy frameworks, sustainable and regenerative relationships with te taiao have been central to te ao Māori, providing insights that are pertinent to combatting food waste in Aotearoa. A relational, holistic, and intergenerational view of environmental stewardship and insights from mātauranga Māori will be embraced throughout project.
  • The context into which the OPMCSA food waste project and recommendations will be delivered is populated by a diverse range of stakeholders, who all have a role to play in combatting food waste. In addition, a number of governmental and intergovernmental food waste initiatives are underway. Examples of best practice will be highlighted as case studies to inspire systemic change.

We thank the many researchers, stakeholders, and officials in our project reference group. Our work wouldn’t be possible without the academic and on-the-ground insights shared by this diverse group, who have helped to guide our approach to this project, commented on drafts, hosted us for visits, engaged in thought-provoking discussions, and shared resources and whakaaro.

The next report in our series will be on food rescue. Aside from source prevention, ensuring surplus food ends up in bellies instead of bins is the next best things we can do to tackle food waste in Aotearoa. If you are keen to be involved in the food rescue report or any others in our project series, please get in touch

Ngā manaakitanga,

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