Food waste: a Colombian/Australian perspective

In trying to get a better understanding of our food system, I find it helpful to look at different perspectives and see things through different people’s eyes. I remember having some fascinating conversations with a former colleague Asseneth Quintero, who at the time had recently moved to Australia from Colombia, about differences in the way that we purchase our food. Asseneth kindly agreed to write down some of these observations in a guest blog which I have shared below. “Food waste: eat seasonal, cook humble, be appreciative” “Food waste struck me when Susie invited me to share my personal observations on how fresh food is marketed, consumed and sold in Australia and Colombia. Thanks to their diverse climate, both countries enjoy the fortune of having fresh produce available all year round. Similarly, both countries’ produce are highly regarded in international markets. Australia is internationally acclaimed for its produce of beef, dairy, fruit and vegetables. According to Austrade, more than two thirds of Australia’s produce are exported each year. Similarly, Colombia has made its mark on the global map for its premium-quality coffee and bananas. 2013-07-17 02.51.39-2But where these two countries widely differ is on how food is wasted. Globally, 1.3 billion tonnes of food goes to waste every year, being the major causes for waste: production-to-retailing infrastructure and consumer behaviour, according to a study from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Food waste can then be distilled into how fresh produce is marketed, consumed and sold in each country. Little advertising vs MasterChef-level marketing In Colombia, fresh food consumption is driven by seasonality rather than by marketing. Buying fresh food is so deeply embedded in Colombian culture that it needs no marketing. I can only recall advertising from peak industry bodies. For instance, Fedegan, the nation’s peak body representing livestock producers, regularly promotes beef over other mutually-exclusive products, just like Meat & Livestock Australia’s latest campaign ‘You are better on beef’. Otherwise, very little advertising goes into promoting fresh food. On the contrary, a great marketing effort goes into driving demand for fresh produce in Australia. Peak industry bodies, cooking television shows, renowned chefs’ cookbooks and specialty magazines actively promote home cooking. These efforts incentivise the use of fresh produce at heart. However, these marketing efforts also put a price tag on fresh produce by elevating its status—making it unaffordable for many. Food waste starts when we give cosmetic and gourmet characteristics to fresh produce. According to Food Wise, an estimated 20% to 40% of fruit and vegetables get rejected due to cosmetic standards. Not all produce meets the catalogue-look standard to make it to the shelves of supermarkets, let alone the award-winning look to make it to the consumer’s dinner plate. The bruised apple and the weird-shaped carrot have just been sentenced to rejection. Humble home cooking vs sophisticated eating Certainly, roulades and three-way dishes do not find a place on the average Colombian cook’s recipe book. Colombians instead cook humble meals that are quick to prepare and do the job: relieve hunger, a basic human need. Juggling tight budgets and with large families to feed, most Colombians recall their mothers or grandmothers saying: ‘eat it all! Don’t leave anything on your plate’. Colombians are taught to be appreciative of food, as you never know when you will be unable to put some on the table. The MasterChef-level marketing has left its footprint on Australia’s eating behaviours, especially on generation Y. Research has found that popularity of television cooking shows has sparked the purchase of household cooking items. Similarly, this trend has also boosted the complexity of dishes prepared at home. This trend contrast starkly with the reality of everyday life. Full of inspiration, supplied with only the best fresh produce and equipped with all kitchen utensils, Australians venture into recreating amazing dishes at home—a home cook’s paradise. Contrarily, research found that Australians reach for more takeaways and out-of-home meals than for the fridge door. No blame. This new benchmark is disheartening. With long working hours, hectic lifestyles and inflated expectations, home cooks are surely better off picking up some food on their way home. And this very reasoning leads to $2.67 billion worth of fresh food being thrown away every year in Australia—33% of all food wasted in a year in Australia. According to Food Wise, one of the top reasons for fresh food waste is buying takeaways at the last minute. Australia is not alone on this trend though. Food waste is an epidemic issue in the developed world. Down to being appreciative Consumption of fresh produce is endemic in Colombian major cities. Fresh produce is available virtually anywhere. Colombians can easily reach for fresh ingredients to put a meal together. Almost every suburb has a market where cooks can indulge in fresh ingredients at very reasonable prices. The convenience of having fresh produce at hand influences purchase behaviour. It’s not unusual to buy dinner ingredients at lunch time of the very same day. This flexibility also allows Colombians to buy in small quantities. You can easily buy $0.50 worth of thyme just before you start cooking. Flexibility in quantities and availability aid to give access to fresh food to many—even those trying to make ends meet. Low prices and abundance seems like a home cook’s paradise. However, it is not without putting a strain on farmers. The agricultural sector in Colombia is fragmented with farmers producing low volume. Since not much attention goes into cosmetic traits, most fresh produce doesn’t meet international standards. Farmers therefore become dependent and vulnerable to local demand. During high season of any given crop, selling price might not even cover for transport and distribution costs. Sadly, it results on food going to waste without even have left the farms. While Colombians are very appreciative of food, we might not be as appreciative of our farmers—a contradictory behaviour among many in this country. Australia’s reality in this area seems quite different. Farmers have the latest production technologies. Supported by well-developed infrastructure, fresh produce excess makes its way to international markets. In the local demand arenas, chain supermarkets dominate the supply chain, and make sure consumers pay a fair price for fresh produce. However, —as in any relationship—the bargaining power of the dominant party increases exponentially when power is unbalanced among the parties. This is the reason some farmers have turned to develop their own brands and distribution channels to bring their produce to consumers. As in many areas of my life, being a Colombian-Aussie has brought the best out of me. I have become more appreciative of food and farmers alike. I now turn weird-shaped apples, bought at the local fresh market, into amazing-looking apple tarts. Most importantly, I make sure my husband eats it all, so no food goes to waste. Despite good intentions, I have to admit I still run to the closest takeaway shop all too often as my busy lifestyle kicks in. Another great difference that I can’t let pass is apple and pear production. Unlike Australia, Colombia’s production doesn’t meet local demand. They are therefore imported, mostly from Chile and the United States. I hope the yummy South Australian apples and pears find their way to Colombia one day. For those who want to learn more about food waste, here is a list of useful resources:

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