Australian Science Media Centre Roundup

Published: Wed 25 Nov 2009 04:24 PM
Australian Science Media Centre - 25 November 2009
RAPID ROUNDUP: Environmental impacts of increased food waste – Experts respond
A US study published in the journal PLoS One today indicates that oversupply of food has increased food waste by about 50 per cent since 1974, contributing to excessive consumption of freshwater and fossil fuels. The study also suggests that the American obesity epidemic is linked to an increase in the availability and marketing of cheap food. Below, several experts respond to the study.
Dr Paul Harrison is the Senior Lecturer for Marketing at the Deakin Business School, Deakin University
On marketing’s role in the overconsumption of food:
“One of the biggest contributors to obesity and environmental degradation in the past 40 years has been the increasing sophistication of all facets of marketing to create an environment where highly processed and energy dense food is easily available to those living in developed countries. Although lifestyles have become more sedentary over this time, it is a fact that consumers have been encouraged through highly sophisticated marketing activities, including supply chain management (access to food), pricing (reduced costs and longer perishability of processed foods), as well as advertising, to purchase (and consume) foods that may provide a high fat, high sugar, and high salt "hit".
While these foods give an instant reward, overconsumption has a cost to both the environment, and to individual health. The findings of Kevin Hall and his colleagues at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in the US and published in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS One, do not come as a surprise.
However, the fact that they have been able to calculate the actual dimensions of the effect of food waste and energy dense food consumed by Americans means that politicians need to do more than blame consumers, telling them to "eat less" and "exercise more" and start to recognise that not all consumption is good for the economy.
Marketers themselves also need to recognise that their activities have an effect far beyond simply selling products. My research into how consumers make choices suggests that highly processed and packaged foods have a similar "push" effect when consumers shop. For example, although a 625 gram block of cheese is presented as "good value", the consumer may well be buying (and consuming) 125 grams more cheese than they had planned, regardless of the discount for buying in bulk.”
Professor David Kemp is the Chair of Farming Systems for Agricultural and Wine Sciences at Charles Sturt University
On farming’s role in the waste of food:
“The issue of food waste is clearly important in an over-populated world where >1b people do not get enough to eat, while those in the more developed world have the luxury of choice. This topic has been studied for some time. I think some archaeologists in Arizona came up with interesting estimates of the detail of household waste years ago. That is a major limitation in the PLoS paper as it is about modelling the energy balance. Energy is clearly the primary requirement for any plant or animal, but then often protein and other nutrients are required such that some of the apparent 'waste' could be from people seeking those additional sources. This work needs to be extended to find out what the 'waste' actually comprises so that useful solutions can then be identified. Are the problems from too many cabbages being grown, potatoes or...? At what stage from production to consumption is most 'waste' occurring?
It is a pity this team did not include any agricultural scientists - a declining group of experts - as there is a further question about what 'waste' is unavoidable. Any home gardener who grows vegetables invariably throws away food that could have been eaten, because surpluses are too big to handle eg zucchinis, or it was picked too late and started to rot, etc. Agriculture is characterised by seasonal production cycles and cannot be regulated like a factory to just deliver only what is absolutely needed. The real waste is between that proportion that is somewhat unavoidable and that which consumers throw away - after taking into account that some foods are used for other nutrients than energy. There are probably many inefficiencies in the food distribution system. In this paper the 'waste' is clearly post farm-gate and hence agriculture is less likely to be the culprit.
I was surprised that agriculture seems to get the blame and medicine once again is pure. For as long as I can remember there has been the plea for medicine to do more about prevention than cure. The obesity debate is clearly in that camp with millions being spent on finding diet pills etc, but much less on working with people, suppliers and food producers to resolve these large problems. Medicine is about finding magic bullets and making millions, rather than taking a system approach and resolving better practices.
This study was done in the USA and it would be dangerous to extrapolate to anywhere else. USA agriculture is renowned for having greater inputs and lower levels of efficiency than would apply in Australia. USA farmers are very effective at delivering to their markets, but that is not the same as efficiency.
This study needs a better understanding of how markets work, and their limitations. Farmers are paid in the main by a wholesaler who estimates how much they want and at what price. There is only a small part of that which considers 'waste'. The wholesaler thinks they can sell all they buy. This touches on the larger problem that market signals are an imperfect mechanism for covering all the costs of any activity. Consumers are not willing to pay the true environmental costs of production and hence others in the marketing chain adjust accordingly. Farmers simply aim to make a profit based on the information they have available to them.
Markets are never perfect but the problem of obesity is much greater than simply suggesting agriculture is to blame, when current medical strategies have obviously failed. Most farmers would want to eliminate waste but the present system has a long way to go before waste can be minimal.”
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