The environmental impact of food waste – two problems, one solution

by | Jun 22, 2021 | Opinion

Guest editorial: Deborah Manning, Kiwi Harvest

In recent years, environmental activism such as School Strikes for Climate, coupled with the introduction of new legislation (including the Paris Agreement and Climate Change Response Act), have elevated environmental issues further into the public consciousness – at both a local and international level.

While these milestones are making a positive difference – leading to positive outcomes for both the health of our people and our planet – there’s still significant work to be done to address the catastrophic climate crisis that lies ahead.

One of the simplest (and yet most often overlooked) ways that we can reduce our impact on the environment, at an individual level, is to look at the way we’re buying, consuming, and wasting food.


We need food to survive

Ensuring everyone has access to healthy, nutritious food is one of the greatest challenges we face as a nation. Following the outbreak of COVID-19, an estimated 1 million Kiwis are now living without daily, reliable access to nutritious food.

At the same time, our population continues to grow at a rapid rate. It’s estimated that by 2050, there will be almost 10 billion people on the planet[1], and demand for food is also expected to dramatically increase.

Large parts of our population are going hungry while many of us continue to waste an enormous (almost criminal) amount of food. New Zealand households throw away over 157,000 tonnes of food a year, while our food and hospitality industries waste approximately 103,000 tonnes of food.

All of this food could be rediverted from landfill, to go towards feeding those in need.


Food uses precious resources

 At every stage of its life cycle – from production to distribution to disposal – food is a significant contributor to climate change and carbon emissions. In fact, research shows that food accounts for over a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions[2] and 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions are associated with food that is not consumed.[3]

Food production requires energy and fresh, clean water (which is an already scarce resource) – and the energy used to grow food exceeds the energy that food provides when it is consumed. By wasting food, we are simply wasting precious resources.

Currently, our global food system is able to sustainably feed just 3.4 billion of the nearly 8 billion people on the planet – and by 2050, it’s estimated that 95% of our land will be degraded.

With half of the world’s habitable land already used for agriculture[4], it’s a matter of better utilising the resources we already have, reviving nature by regenerating our soils, restoring our forests and cleaning our oceans.

Our entire environmental ecosystem is connected to food – by changing our perception about food and using our resources more efficiently, we could feed up to 10 billion people on a sustainable basis.


Adopting a national food strategy

 In New Zealand that means we need to implement a national food strategy. In order to be most effective a national food strategy needs to be developed with input from the community, leadership groups (Aotearoa Circle) and from our Government, with varying departments (including MfE, MPI, MSD, MoE, MoH) working closely and collaboratively to ensure an even greater positive impact.

Food waste needs to be a key part of any food strategy. Organisations like the NZ Food Waste Champions 12.3 have been doing critical work in this space, and their Food Waste Reduction Roadmap sets out a framework to follow and successful case studies.

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals outline a food waste reduction target of 50% by 2030, and as part of the global effort to address climate change, our Government needs to be taking urgent action towards this goal.

We all play a part in addressing the inefficiencies in our food system and collaboration is key to finding solutions: including Government agencies, public and private organisations, iwi, NGOs, community groups, individuals, households, and the broader public.

The Ministry for the Environment’s intention to set a New Zealand food loss and waste guideline is a step in the right direction. MfE committed in 2020 to setting a food loss and waste target, definition, and baseline – but we are yet to see real progress on these fronts.

These efforts would be significantly bolstered by the introduction of a framework encouraging businesses to make a voluntary commitment to drive food waste reduction – measuring food waste, setting targets and taking action. The UK offers a good international example with its Courtauld Commitment 2025. Brought to life with the help of government funding and support, the initiative contributed to a 27% reduction in per capita food waste at the retail and consumer level.

We simply can’t afford to keep wasting food while New Zealanders continue to go hungry.

By rediverting food to communities in need, instead of throwing it away, we could not only help to solve the environmental menace of food waste – but address New Zealand’s devasting food insecurity crisis.

 Deborah Manning is founder of the New Zealand Food Network and KiwiHarvest and co-chair of the NZ Food Waste Champions 12.3




[1] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

[2] Poore, J. and Nemecek, T., 2018. Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science, 360(6392)

[3] FAO “Food wastage footprint & climate change”

[4] Ellis, E. C., Klein Goldewijk, K., Siebert, S., Lightman, D., & Ramankutty, N. (2010). Anthropogenic transformation of the biomes, 1700 to 2000Global Ecology and Biogeography19(5), 589-606.

About the Author

Vincent Heeringa

Hi, I'm Vincent! I'm a co-founder of The Feed, a writer, marketer and PR expert specialising in food, tech and sustainability. In a previous life I was publisher of Idealog, Stoppress, NZ Marketing and Good magazines and helped establish the Science Media Centre. I'm also the host of a podcast ‘This Climate Business’. When I'm not burning the midnight oil, I'm hitting the town or planting trees with my wife Sarah. Ping me to talk about all things food. @vheeringa

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