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Saving our Food

Chris McElwain and Christian Reynolds

Food that is wasted, not going into human mouths, not having a purpose, being left to rot and a wasted resource, is about 8% of our global climate emissions. That is a staggering amount!

Christian Reynolds

We all love food, but the ways we grow, make, sell and consume it causes a scandalous amount of waste. The land footprint used to grow this wasted food every year occupies an area the size of Canada and India combined. Food waste also uses vast quantities of water and is linked to 8-11% of global greenhouse gas emissions. 
In response, the UN has called for food waste to be halved by 2030, and as a country that makes a lot of food – we export about 70% of our agricultural output – Australia has a considerable role to play. Australia started its response to this challenge with the release of the National Food Waste Strategy in 2017.  

Hear pioneering global expert on wasted food, Dr Christian Reynolds, in conversation with UNSW's Chris McElwain, as they explain why we waste so much food and discuss the twin challenges of saving more food and safely managing the food we cannot avoid wasting.

If you'd like to dig deep into this conversation, The Routledge Handbook of Food Waste is available now from the UNSW Bookshop. Order here for a 20% discount.  

The Centre for Ideas’ International Conversations series brings the world to Sydney.  Each digital event brings a leading UNSW thinker together with their international peer or hero to explore inspiration, new ideas and discoveries. 


Ann Mossop: Hello, and welcome to the UNSW Centre for Ideas podcast,  a place to hear ideas from the world's leading thinkers and UNSW Sydney’s brightest minds. I'm Ann Mossop from UNSW Centre for Ideas and I'm very happy to welcome you to this event in our international series, where leading writers and thinkers from around the world are in conversation with UNSW researchers about new ideas, discoveries and inspiration. We're coming to you from our homes in Sydney, and I'd like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land I'm speaking from, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation and pay my respects to their elders past and present. Our conversation today is titled Saving Our Food. It brings together food waste expert Christian Reynolds from the Center for Food Policy at City University in London. With Chris McElwain from UNSW Sydney. They'll be talking about food waste, sharing some of the really concerning statistics about how much of our food is wasted, not just in our households, but also in our sometimes very inefficient supply chains, and also what their research tells us about some simple solutions to reducing food waste. Our host tonight Christopher McElwain is a teaching fellow and PhD candidate in the Faculty of Law and Justice here at UNSW, Sydney. His research explores sustainability and regulation, focusing on waste prevention and resource recovery. Thank you, Chris.

Chris McElwain: Thank you Ann, my name is Chris McElwain. And I'm from the UNSW's Faculty of Law and Justice. Welcome to The Center for Ideas talk this evening, Saving Our Food. Before we meet Christian Reynolds this evening. I too, would like to acknowledge that the land upon which UNSW Sydney is located, has traditional custodians, and those traditional custodians are the Bidjigal people of the Eora nation. I would also like to acknowledge and pay my respects to their elders, past, present, and emerging. Thank you for joining us this evening on our talk about saving our food. It's my very great pleasure. And I'm excited and indeed delighted to have here tonight, one of the global rock stars of food waste research. Dr. Christian Reynolds. Christian is a senior lecturer at the Centre for Food Policy at City University in London, and he's coming to us live from a very early hour in the UK. Hello, Christian.

Christian Reynolds: Hello, and good evening, Chris. It's a pleasure to be here with you.

Chris McElwain: So right off the bat, Christian, just before we move on to looking at the scandal of food waste, and how cities and individuals and nations and businesses are moving to meet the challenge of food waste. Let's learn a little bit more about you and your Australian connections. Tell us a bit about your early career research and how that involved Australia.

Christian Reynolds: Thank you, Chris. So for those of you who can't tell from my accent, I'm originally from Australia. I grew up in New South Wales and Coffs Harbour. And then for my undergraduate, I moved to Adelaide. And so I have degrees from the University of Adelaide. And during that time, I took a course on the anthropology of food. And this blew my mind entirely, because it made me realise that all of these things I'd been learning about economics and about politics could be applied to food. And so I started looking around for a PhD and there was a group funded by an ARC linkage project called Saving Our Food, and they were looking for different PhD students. So I came on as one of the four or five different PhD students funded through that project back in 2010, to 2012. And I graduated from the University of South Australia with a PhD in applied mathematics, which surprised everybody, including myself, because I started with a PhD in psychology, but through different supervisorial changes, I ended up with a PhD in applied mathematics from the University of South Australia, where I was quantifying Australia's food waste for the first time. So looking at the size of the environmental impact, but also how different states or territories and how even different municipalities should be dealing with food waste back in the early 2010s, as it were. So coming out of the global financial crisis, the Australian Institute had published this amazing paper saying, we've got this problem. And so we started researching this problem and starting to say, how big is it? How can we actually start changing it, and how can we do this in a joined up manner? But that was you know, now a decade ago, we started thinking about these things and it's great to see where Australia has gotten to, but again, as we're going to say tonight, spoiler alert, there's still a lot left to go, we still have a huge challenge left.

Chris McElwain: It's very true. And before we move on to that, though, I do want to let you blow your own trumpet a tiny bit more Christian. Tell us a bit more about your PhD, and what was the result in terms of quantification of the level of waste in Australia?

Christian Reynolds: So it was a brutally hard three years of looking for different bits of data sources. So for those of you who are not aware, waste management is usually a state issue. And back in the early 2010s, there was not as much data online or linkages between states and territories as we have today, which means that each state department was measuring things in slightly different ways. And nobody was really measuring food waste beyond the municipal level. And so the big thing that I did was harmonise all of these different databases, link them up, work with some of the people at the Australian Bureau of Statistics and linking these up, and also getting some mentorship from some groups at the University of Sydney and getting the environmental impacts, linking that all together. And so I came up with a figure that there was 7.3 million tonnes of food waste in the UK and broke that down to different parts of the economy as it were. And then, surprise, surprise, me most of all, when the national baseline statistics came out a few years later, and it came up with 7.6 tonnes instead. So again, amazing to see that my work was then validated about five or six years later by the Australian government's own statisticians and consulting on that. So again, it was an early version of these different things. But it was brilliant to see that some of my work had been validated later on. And then I've had chances to be involved in other pieces of Australian food waste research over the years. So looking at, say informal waste, looking at backyard composting, or feeding chickens, or feeding to pets, as well as, say, quantifying the positive good and possible negative benefits of a group such as OzHarvest and other food rescue organisations. And so I say that, saying that, you know, they all have cars on the road, polluting the atmosphere, but at the same time for OzHarvest groups and things like that, they're generating and reducing carbon footprint through capturing the food and feeding it to people. So there's lots of trade offs, you've got to think in these places, and lots of different solutions to food loss and waste in Australia.

Chris McElwain: And it's remarkable, I think, the remarkable thing is that your PhD about the levels of food waste in Australia was so accurate, 7.3. And I think the baseline might have initially said 7.3 million tonnes, a staggering amount in Australia, that we're still wasting that much food. But the more recent feasibility study, I think, is 7.6-7 million tonnes or something, but very nice accuracy in your early research. I also wanted to mention, just briefly, one of the reasons you are one of the global rock stars of food waste research is your lead role in a thing of beauty, your collection of essential research on food waste around the world.

Christian Reynolds: Thank you very much, Chris. So that's the Routledge Handbook of Food Waste. So that was myself with a group of other researchers around the world saying, what did we wish we'd known when we started out in looking at research around food loss and waste? What would, you know, an aspiring policymaker or someone sitting down in a council office who's this… they're going, you're going to work on food waste now. What would I want him to know when I started out? And so we together wrote the book and emailed different authors and said, you know this area better than anybody else could you write this sort of chapter? And so all of those chapters can be available open access online, as well as in a hardcover format through purchasing the book from Routledge. So it's definitely a resource that anybody can try and access to get a really fundamental understanding of food waste, both in Australia, or any part of the world. And we really tried to take an intersectional viewpoint, thinking about food loss and waste from many different angles, and trying to get voices from the Global South, and other Indigenous communities, feeding into that as well. Because food waste isn't just an issue for corporations or for citizens, generally, it's a grassroots issue as well. And everybody can do something about food loss and waste.

Chris McElwain: All right, well, let's turn to the scandalous part of food waste. What do we know about global levels? And what are the impacts of that?

Christian Reynolds: So at the global level, let's get the headline statistics out of the way. So from what we know about 1/3 of food never reaches a human stomach. So that means it's going somewhere else in the food system. That could be it's going towards animal feed, or into say bio oils or things like that, but a majority of that is also going as loss or waste. So there's a kind of definitional thing around loss and waste and we might get to that in a little bit of time. But if we're thinking of it in terms of say climate change, because I think that's a hot topic, we can think about the food system as a whole, contributing around 26 to 30%, depending on the, you know, the accounting method you use for climate impacts. 26 to 30% of global climate emissions per year are due to our food system. Food loss and waste, because of slight differences in impacts, is equivalent to about 8% of climate emissions. So food that is wasted not going into human mouths, not having a purpose, being left to rot, being a waste of resources, is about 8% of our global climate emissions. So that's a staggering amount. So if we want to fix our climate change, if we want to fix our food system, for multiple reasons, looking at food loss, and waste is a prime way to start changing other things within our food system. And that's the big reason we need to look at it. But each country as well, there are different drivers, because food loss and waste means a loss or a waste of resources. So fertilisers, inputs, it means a loss of time of people working in the food sector, chopping things, taking them, farming them, growing them, that is then wasted. So there's multiple reasons for actually wanting to reduce food waste, and reduce food loss there.

Chris McElwain: And the numbers, the numbers are staggering. The 2011 FAO number was 1.3 billion tonnes per year. But more recently, I think some work by WWF UK and UNEP, in 2021, was finding 1.2 billion tonnes lost on farms, and 900 million tonnes lost in the rest of the food system. So that's about 2.1 billion tonnes. In the words from the scene in the Princess Bride, these numbers are inconceivable!

Christian Reynolds: That's exactly what I was about to say, for us as individuals, these are inconceivable amounts of food waste. So I used to work for a global food loss and waste charity called the Waste Resources Action Program, or the shorthand of WRAP. And we used to say, this is this number of buses, or this number of Wembley stadiums, but even then, it becomes numbers that are so big that they just lose all meaning. So I used to volunteer pre-COVID, of course, at a food rescue organisation. So we would be taking food from supermarkets that was at its best before, so it was still safe to eat. But it was not fit for sale anymore for quality reasons. And they will be redistributing that, if it's vegetables or bread, to people in need. And so they were taking this surplus, but even the amount we were getting from one or two local supermarkets still was too much for us as a low small funded charity, to process and so even at that level of local individual, it for want of a better word, blows my mind in terms of the amount of food that's coming. And if we think of that in terms of supermarket waste, for instance, that's an extremely efficient system. And for supermarket waste, we're thinking only about four to five percent, depending where we are in the world. In Australia and the UK, around four to five percent of supermarket waste is wasted because they don't want to waste food, they want to have profit, they want to sell it to people. And so even that amount there, which is a very small amount for the supermarkets, is a staggering amount for other people to process and realise is food waste. So that’s the seen amount of food waste, and if we think in terms of the unseen food waste, the staggering statistic for say, Australia and the UK, is about one in four to one in five bags of food you bring into your home on average, goes to waste. So that means that you're wasting 1/4 or 1/5 of your weekly food budget by it just being wasted, which is a staggering amount of waste there. And that's not noticed by many people. So much of the research I've done or others have done such as Professor David Evans has shown that people just don't notice this waste happening until you actually start making them alert to it, making them realise that this waste occurs and then they start changing their behaviour. But again, there's all these different tensions, so food waste can be unseen. And food waste is just unimaginable in the amount that there is. But there is good news, we can do something there, but sorry, you're about to say something.

Chris McElwain: That's okay, we'll get to some solutions shortly. Where is it occurring, say in developed countries? Whereabouts in the food system? Are we seeing it? You've mentioned that households are a big source? Where else does the research show it's happening?

Christian Reynolds: So this is a really interesting point. Food waste happens across the entire food supply chain, so it happens on farm. So it can even happen pre-harvest, if we think about it, but let's just take it from the point of harvest because then we know it's definitely food that's coming off the farm, it can happen there. It can then happen say if we're taking a vegetable at the pack house or it goes from the farm to a place gets washed, sorted, it might be a wonky shape, it might not fit specifications, it, you know, could get knocked out and become waste there, it could then go on to a secondary processor. So it could be say grain being milled, there could be waste there, you know, it travels up the chain. And there is food loss and waste at every single stage, there are inefficiencies at every stage of this food supply chain. And so there are different amounts of food waste happening at these different stages based on the type of food that it is. So there's a combination here of what interventions or things we can enact in terms of policy or things we can do with different groups to actually change the amounts of food loss and waste based on where it's happening. But if you're wanting, say a overall answer, households are contributing 30 to 40% of, per country, food loss and waste. But then you also have food loss and waste at each other part of the chain. So hospitality has an amount, supermarkets, as I said, about 5% of total turnover is lost or wasted, depending on which supermarket and what products you're talking about. So there's large amounts at different points of the chain. And I guess the complexity is, if you solve it and make something not wasted down the chain, it can then be sold further up the chain, which means it gives people more opportunities to waste that food later on, or it to be sold into new markets. While, if you waste or stop wasting things up the chain, people might buy less. And so it might have ripples back down the chain. So there's lots of these system wide complexities in terms of how you solve food loss and waste. But overall, it's spread throughout. But in all countries now, households, whether it's developed, developing, wherever you are, households are one of the big factors of food loss in waste, but we shouldn't blame the consumer there. Because there are system based lock-ins, which I'm sure we'll come to, that mean that the consumers are locked into wasting a certain amount of food. So that could be packs, portion size, etc. But I'm sure we'll come to that in a second. Does that set the scene?

Chris McElwain: Yes, I think now we know some of the scale of the scandal. And we know what some of the impacts are. And some countries started moving on food waste like the UK, much earlier. But maybe you might want to talk about the Sustainable Development Goals and in particular the 12.3, and how that's been a driver for action before we look at some solutions.

Christian Reynolds: Brilliant, yes, no, you're you're really right to bring up the Sustainable Development Goals. So the Sustainable Development Goals are global goals that are set for sustainability, to end in 2030. And there are these different goals relating to different things. And so sustainable development 12 is specifically related to sustainability with sustainable development goal 12.3. So there's a very long list of different goals there, related to food loss and waste. And this is where I'm going to get very bureaucratic for a second. So sorry, guys, this is the perfect streaming that you want, is to think about bureaucracy and you know, exact wording. But the goal 12.3 is broken down into two parts. Part one says we need to halve food waste by 2030. Part two says, and reduce food loss. And that you know, kind of in brackets, it's not actually saying this, but where possible. So reduce food loss, but halve food waste by 2030. So this is why I talk about reducing food loss and waste, because there are two different concepts, as it were. And each of those concepts is run by a different organisation. So the top part of it, the food waste part is administered and measured by the UN Environment Program, while the bottom half, which is loss, which is relinking, to agricultural food waste, so things happening down the supply chain, so from packhouse, on farm, etc. That's counted by the FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, and that's looking and measuring slightly differently. So the main goal that we're all concerned with is halving food loss and waste. But the big thing in the sustainable development goal is halving food waste, so that closer to the consumer waste in restaurants, in supermarkets and in homes as well. Now, the really powerful thing about SDG or Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 is they have a group behind them called Champions 12.3, which is a group of international CEOs, of activists of people from all walks of life, who are getting behind this to say in my company, I am signing a pledge to help mobilise my company, my efforts towards being an ambassador to make 12.3 happen. So this means they're sharing knowledge, they're sharing resources. Because back when the SDGs the Sustainable Development Goals first came out the champions group made a business case for food loss and waste reduction. And so they said that we need to actually show all businesses that it's worth their while to reduce food loss and waste. And the powerful thing is they've come out with a study that shows that there's a 14 to one payback ratio in some hospitality industries. And overall, it's a seven to one payback ratio. Throughout more of the food system, in terms of every dollar you put into food waste, there's a 14 or seven fold return on investment of that, in terms of reducing food waste, and then they've given in measures to enable businesses and education resources and different things to enable. So there's lots of global movements out there helping to be coordinated by this Champions 12.3 network. And so there are many different actors globally, trying to help reduce and foster food waste reduction efforts. And so that's CEOs of major companies, through to chefs in restaurants, through to people on the ground level. So this is a very much a multi pronged attack. And it shows that hopefully, by 2030, we can have a much stronger hold and fingers crossed have reduced food loss and waste. So one of the Australian Government ambitions is to reduce food waste by 2030 by half. And so one of the big things that I've been working on over the last year is supporting FIAL, in doing some of the modelling to see what policy mixes we need to actually reduce food loss and waste to meet that goal. Shall I do a spoiler there, Chris? 

Chris McElwain: Yes, sure. 

Christian Reynolds: So the big spoiler with that is that the Australian Government, and Australians in general have it within their capacity to actually get to 52% food waste reduction, if we, you know, did a sensible policy mix, if we threw the kitchen sink at food waste, we could by 2030, reduce it further. But that would be you know, switching everything that we could, thinking about it day and night. But I think a more reasonable thing is there's a lot of change that needs to happen within the next two to three years. But we can do that, as Australia, and I'm saying we, I’m based in the UK, I'm still an Australian citizen, we can reduce food loss and waste to 52% of what it was. That said, if we just continue where we are, you know, let's continue with the current things we're doing. So we're not accelerating, we're just keeping our foot on the accelerator at the same pace we are, that's only going to result in about a 23% reduction in food loss and waste, which is not enough to meet the targets. It's not enough for climate change. And it has actually negative consequences or bigger economic impacts compared to if we went all out and did that bigger policy mix, because there are actually positive economic benefits. As, you know, I was saying, the fourteen, or seven to one for Australia, as a nation, reducing food waste makes economic sense, it makes climate sense, and it makes water sense. There's all of these tick boxes that we can have there. And this is a very broad mix of actions that need to be undertaken by individual citizens in their homes, but also by each level of government, as well as industry. It's a united effort for food loss and waste in Australia, but we can do it, and I guess, I'm being overwhelmingly positive here to energise and say, we've got about three years of intense action ahead of us to make sure we meet that 2030 target, we've got to set the framework now to enable that. I know I'm speaking very broadly there. But again, we can do this.

Chris McElwain: That's very positive, I might invite a few questions in relation to that in a little while. So there's a few things arising out of that, one of the things that Australia doesn't seem to have gone down the path of though, is talking about food loss and food waste in its national strategies. It's adopted something that I think is a bit more ambitious, just talking about food waste in general, across the entire food system, and calling for a halving everywhere.

Christian Reynolds: Yeah, so it's a definite tension, I think in terms of where food loss and waste features within government policy documents, as well as setting down frameworks for how we go about that. So within our modelling, we showed that it's not a reduction of half in each single sector, because some sectors are a lot harder to move than others. So I've been working in this area for a decade plus, and household food waste is really hard to shift. A, because it's based on a population growth thing. So you can reduce it, per capita, but per capita, there are more people. And so therefore, it keeps on climbing sneakily at the fundamental level. But also, people, habits, their practices all change over time. And food waste is sometimes not the top priority of everybody in the household. You know, it's definitely not the top priority. Let's be honest to everybody in the household all the time. And so the gains you can see in say, a household, at best I'm, I'm personally thinking we will get 20 to 23% reduction from household over that time. If we were to get a 50 percent reduction, that will be amazing. But that will be unheard of in terms of global food waste movements. You need to throw a lot of money at household behaviour change, in order to get that. There are much more efficient ways to A: reduce food waste, and reduce higher carbon, higher water footprint food waste, back up the chain, which means consumers never have to even think about wasting it. So yes, consumers and households and citizens need to change their behaviour. And we need to also have things in place further up the chain, which enable them. But to your point, yeah, so some policy documents are talking about halving throughout the food chain. But there's a more nuanced perspective saying, different parts of the chain need to be doubled down. So in supermarkets, we need to eliminate it virtually entirely, in other parts of industry, we need to eliminate it virtually entirely. But in households, there's a tension there, because we have to understand that food waste is not the top priority for every citizen, and neither should it be. So let's think about that. But it's great the Australian Government's ambition and different states and territories ambition, but coordinating those so that it's both a benefit for the wider food system and other food system issues such as health, such as environment, such as jobs, etc, is a big tension within all of these different policy documents that are coming out.

Chris McElwain: So let's explore that a little bit. And I think you've very nicely brought out how we need both individual behaviour change, and there's been a big, long running program in the UK Love Food, Hate Waste run by WRAP, W-R-A-P. And then that's been adopted in Australia, initially by the New South Wales Environment Protection Authority, and then picked up in Victoria and Brisbane City Council and the ACT. And that's trying to bring about that household behaviour change. Let's talk about that, perhaps in a sec. What is your research show about effective interventions that might be good for systemic change?

Christian Reynolds: Yeah, so there's things that we can do in terms of behaviour change intervention, so things as you've just said, that are Love Food, Hate Waste, changing people's practices, but there are things further up the chain that we could be thinking about. So one of the big things, if we're thinking in terms of different sectors is say, portion size, or packaging size, that could knock on and change household waste, because I was talking earlier about structural lock ins. And so for an example, if you go to a supermarket, and you buy certain types of fruits and vegetables, they'll come in plastic packaging sometimes, or if you buy bakery products, for rolls, they'll come in a six pack of rolls, you may be an individual, a single person living alone, you can't eat those six rolls before they go off. The modelling that we've looked at in the UK, for instance, has shown that the standard 800 grams sliced loaf of bread with the current bread consumption in the UK, you don't get through it if you're a family of two easily unless you're having bread for every meal. So you need to think about can we either reduce the size of the loaves? Can we keep those fresher for longer? Can we change packaging, portion size, all of these sorts of wider food system based interventions, enabling the consumers to waste less. At the same point, some of the most exciting interventions I've also seen for consumers are changing the size of your plate, so that even changing the size of the plate and the serving spoon you use actually changes the amount you eat. So you're still feeling full, but you put less on your plate. And likewise, there is less waste after that. So there are different things we can do at a very simple level. But you could also think of this in terms of where can we go in terms of high tech, internet of things, internet of food things. And there's lots we could do in terms of linking through to AI, linking through to machine learning in terms of thinking about all these different integrated datasets, integrated logistics, which is there, is just applying and thinking about predicting forecasting, all of these different things to make sure we have the most efficient supply chain, and more importantly for Australia, and efficient chill chain. So because of Australia's variable heat, having a very strong refrigerated capacity, and having that at different points and making sure the food comes from the field into the chill chain, if it's a high value product, so dairy, etc. So it's high value, high carbon footprint, we need dairy to be chilled and have a longer shelf life, because our models have found that even one extra day of shelf life reduces food waste dramatically. But with that, as well, you have open life of different food. So for instance, when you have a pot of yoghurt, there's a different shelf life that you have when it's open as opposed to, if it's a closed sealed container. Which means that, for food waste, it's actually better to buy six pots of small yoghurt and you, you know, recycle your plastic compared to having one big kilo tub. However you then get these trade offs with plastic waste. And the news is in terms of Australia's plastic recycling and capacity right now, there's a different story there. Again, I've gone really narrow down into focus, but just showing you how complicated some of these different aspects are, relating to how we change the system for both positive environmental benefit, positive economic benefit, and wider reductions in food waste. So thinking of these big system based things, improving the chill chain, improving transport and logistics, making better roads, these are not sexy things, are they? But they do really help, and they will reduce carbon impact. And they will be leading to people being better off in terms of finance, but also there being better economic resilience throughout the economy.

Chris McElwain: And I just want to explore something that might be lurking as a bit of a game changer at the very beginning of the food system. And that is in primary production. We know that there are many causes of waste, pre and post harvest. And you've mentioned some of them like specifications. I'm wondering if there are other technologies like vertical farming, or controlled irrigation or greenhouse production, or even right at the frontier at the moment, lab grown meat, which could have impacts on the way we produce food and minimising waste. Do you have anything to say about that?

Christian Reynolds: So in regards to different farming methods coming along, so Australia has a lot of farmland, per capita, but also just generally, globally, Australia has a lot of farmland, and very few labourers per acre as it were. So you're quite… we're? You're? Quite efficient in terms of that. And there are issues as we've seen in terms of COVID, of resilience of getting people to the right place to harvest the crop at the right time in terms of labour and capacity issues. So that's definitely a issue. And so in the UK, I've been working with a wider group of researchers looking at how you can deploy robotics and other high tech pieces of equipment into filling those labour gaps, standardising, putting these things into the field to reduce those sorts of loss and waste. But at the same time, there are big structural issues there. So yes, we can be plugging these things. But it's not the only thing that Australia needs to sort out in terms of that. So yes, we need to be thinking about these bigger technologies. But at the same point, there are simple solutions as well in terms of thinking about how much we pay for our crops, getting the supermarkets, say, to to give a whole purchase agreement. So the supermarket says to the farmer, I will buy the entirety of your crop. So that means all the wonky bits, I have to then bind things to do with all that wonky food, you just have to worry about growing and harvesting it. Yes, that might be a slight price rise, but that gives economic certainty to the farmer, as well as meaning that the supermarket has to invest in these wider range of things. But if you're thinking in terms of say, robotics, drones, urban farming, all of these have their place, but there's no silver bullet here. So definitely in terms of urban farming, or growing short shelf life items, so fresh herbs, etc. Or say mushrooms from food waste products, those are all really useful things that can happen within an urban environment. But some things we still need rural agricultural land to grow. And so that's not going to change anytime soon, in terms of the scale that we need.

Chris McElwain: Of course, I just want to turn to a intervention that's been long running in the UK, the Courtauld Commitments. And it's something that's been picked up in Australia as the Australian Food Pact. So you mentioned there's been a rapid amount of work on food waste in Australia. We had the National Food strategy in 2017. And then we created the fight food waste CRC based in South Australia in 2018. We've got the new regulatory agency, Stop Food Waste Australia, and it's administering the Australian Food Pact and some companies have signed on. What's your research showing about how those voluntary commitment programs work?

Christian Reynolds: Right. So the Courtauld Commitment is a UK based voluntary agreement that's been running since the early to mid 2000s. And it was originally focusing on packaging, food waste, carbon, kind of, this trifecta. And each iteration, it's, kind of, a five year plan to say, over these five years, all the people, all the organisations that sign up, we commit together to measure our impacts, or food waste, packaging, carbon, and then reduce accordingly as a collective. Which means some people could be kicking their feet, but internally they'll be named and shamed. They won't be shamed to the outside community, but they will internally. And so the Courtauld over this time, so it was named after the place where the signing happened, the Courtauld Gallery of Art in London. So the Courtauld Commitment has continued to evolve over those years. So there was Courtauld One, Courtauld Two, Courtauld Three, Courtauld 2025. And now Courtauld 2030. So you can see the theme that's emerging there. They're sitting these five year plans or so, to assess what is happening and set new targets. So they're effective, to a degree, because it means that everybody is working together, investing in the technology, investing in studies or sprint groups to say what works in these different areas. And so while working at WRAP, I worked closely in the Courtauld area, I didn't work on Courtauld, but I worked for research feeding into the Courtauld Commitment. So highlighting I have a vested viewpoint as it were within the Courtauld Commitment, and outcomes from that. And currently, some of my current work on food waste and plastic packaging is possibly next on this Thursday going to come out to look at how loose versus packaged fruits and vegetables in the UK may be changing. But keep your eyes out for that on Thursday or Friday this week, Australian time. So again, it's a mechanism that enables funding, and it enables 96% of the entire retail market in the UK, to actually work together on this problem, trade best practice and together measure at a standardised level and bring it down. And that's effective, because there's no government legislation in this, at this moment, because the government isn't legislating. So as somebody in the Center for Food Policy at City University of London, I could also say, it would be amazing if the government said, as the EU government has done, has said all countries need to measure food waste, or companies need to measure food waste, at a certain level. And that's not happening, we're in Brexit land. So we're outside those measurements to a degree. So there are different strengths and weaknesses to the voluntary approach. Because it's not legally binding, it's your peers who are binding. But it is having progress, and the voluntary agreement also works because these people understand the practicalities of running a business, in terms of, where they know they actually have capacity to reduce and have that timeframe and commitments there. So it's a double edged sword, definitely, you know, you can come out with hard policy and regulatory measures, which we could do as the Australian Government. But for now, and in our modelling, even just the voluntary approach, accelerated to the pace where it needs to be accelerated, will be enough to help reduce food waste, because it causes other knock on effects within the food system, which itself helped to reduce food waste. So it changes and primes, the supply chains as well as the main companies.

Chris McElwain: Yes, and I think the UK experience might show that because there's no silver bullet, you need a wide range of tools. And it did look like the Conservative government was going to introduce mandatory reporting. But that might have fallen away. Maybe we can turn now a little bit to some of the questions that people have been submitting and the pre submitted questions. Perhaps just before that, I can share a few low tech solutions that we use at home for householders on wasted food, because that's a big issue for lots of people. How can we contribute to saving food at home? And I know you might have one or two items there that you might want to share with us.

Christian Reynolds: But what are we both brought for show and tell? So my big tip, as it were, for everybody, is to check the temperature of your fridge. So there's a website called chill the fridge out, which if you Google that it gives you the instructions for UK fridges, but they're all the same manufacturers, they're in Australia, and set your fridge to five degrees C or below, because that means you get an extra day of shelf life or an extended shelf life on all your fridge base goods. But that's a really low hanging fruit. The other things that we could be doing are things like packs and portion sizes, I say, measuring the portion. So for instance, this is a intervention from Love Food, Hate Waste, it's a cup, but it's a half cup, but it's actually only 100 mil rather than 125 mil which means you're taking 25 grams less of whatever you're scooping, so if it's rice, or if it's pasta or whatever. And likewise, actually measuring out things. So this is from the Dutch food waste program. And surprise, surprise, this is from the UK one, you can see they're pretty similar. One has a Dutch language on it though. This has a pasta measurer on the bottom for different portion sizes, and just different amounts to actually say, so it's a nutrition intervention as well as a food intervention. So measuring your food, making sure you're cooking the right amount, if you know you're not going to eat leftovers, don't cook leftovers. Understand how food fits into your life. But again, for something everyone can do after this, go and check your fridge and make sure it's below five degrees centigrade. What have you got in your show and tell, before we go to questions?

Chris McElwain: Let's just share two things, I wanted to show what I call food huggers, which are just silicone cups. And I find them very useful if you have, say, half a piece of citrus leftover from a gin and tonic, why you'd have anything left over after a gin and tonic I don't know, but very useful for holding fruit and vegetables and then storing it in the fridge. And then I'm also quite fond of a cloth bag. It has a brand name in Australia called the swag. But you can substitute a slightly damp tea towel. And these are very good for storing fruit and veg in the fridge crisper. In fact, they're so good that you have to make sure you remember to look in the crisper and check the swag bag because otherwise you might end up with some soggy cucumbers.

Christian Reynolds: This is a thing in terms of just looking in the fridge and making sure you look in these different places, and it's a definite trade off. So always a good thing to actually think about. And look before you go shopping. That's a simple intervention that everyone can do.

Chris McElwain: Yes, that's very much part of the training of Love Food, Hate Waste, and I know OzHarvest, also run their, in Australia, their fight food waste program. And both of them commend people to go, the first step in forming good habits about food waste, is checking what you have in the fridge, or in the cupboard and then shopping to a meal plan, not over serving. And then if you've got leftovers, learn to love your leftovers. And those, some of those steps are going to be able to help people get to that 20% reduction that we're looking for in the household sector. Now, here's an interesting question that's coming through online. And this was reflected in some of the pre submitted questions. What about teaching food management to children? A lot of emerging research on this.

Christian Reynolds: Yeah, I think it's a great idea, understanding how to cook, understanding how to manage food, brilliant things to think about. The flip side is we have been teaching different sorts of skills for a long time. And it also is putting all the emphasis again, on the consumer to do right, instead of saying, hey, big supermarkets, things, make sure it's in available portion sizes and pack sizes that we actually wanted to have. And the easier things in terms of changing is back up the system. So we do need education, we do need to show people how to cook. But at the same point, how does that work in a big, wider food systems narrative? Because if we teach children how to cook, it's not just about food waste, it's also about healthy diets. And that has much bigger positive health implications as well, for the health services.

Chris McElwain: And following on from that. We've had another question. Are there differences in food waste generation, and I might add, food waste impacts, if you're having a vegetarian or vegan diet?

Christian Reynolds: Really good question. Thank you to whoever submitted that.

Chris McElwain: Anonymous. 

Christian Reynolds: So, yes. Anonymous, thank you anonymous. So based on what you buy, is what you waste. And so yes, there are differences in what waste you generate, and at the speed at which you generate. So depending on the sort of vegan or vegetarian diet you have, it may be high in fruits and vegetables, which have unavoidable food waste. So peelings or things like that, that generates a baseline amount of food waste, because of the fruits and vegetables you're eating there. So we ran a project in London called Trifocal, which was looking at healthy eating sustainable diets, reducing food waste, and recycling the food you couldn't actually, so the avoidable things like the scraps. And we found, if you did all three of these as education campaigns in school, messaging at work, all these different areas, it meant that if you're moving towards sustainable diets, so lower meat, or vegan, vegetarian, If you want to go to the full extreme there, that A: reduces your dietary impacts, but also can reduce your total food waste, but it does narrowly increase your unavoidable food waste. So there's a slight tension there. That depends on what sort of vegan, vegetarian diet you're going for, if it's all ultra processed vegan patties and things. Again, that's not going to have much waste. But there might be health implications for you from eating all that ultra processed food. So there are lots of tensions here depending on the dietary and food future you want for Australia and you want for yourself.

Chris McElwain: Yes, there's again, it's emphasising there's no silver bullet, and there's always going to be trade offs in whatever solution. Now I remember you mentioning early in your research career looking at how households dispose of food waste, either to sewer or to compost or feeding to pets. You talked about unavoidable waste when we've got the inedible parts of the food which is giving rise to food waste. What are some of the best ways households can deal with that?

Christian Reynolds: Again, a great question. So in terms of household based unavoidable food waste, thinking, if you're living in a block of flats, lots of municipalities currently offer food waste pickup. And as part of the strategy, there's hopefully going to be a rollout of more household food waste recycling, turning it into either energy and then compost or just straight into compost in a municipal composting facility. But if you have the space, you could, of course, put in chickens or put in a compost bin yourself, Australia actually has backyards, unlike the UK. But if we think about that avoidable food waste up the chain, there are a couple of different, more silver bullets you could think of. So one of the big things that we found is, Australia could be feeling a lot more of its unavoidable food waste, but still edible, but is part of the production process, to animals. So increasing the amount of say pig feed, or feeding it to insects, which those insects then get fed to chickens or fish, in terms of aquaculture or egg laying hens. So transforming the unavoidable food waste, the bits that have to happen, into food that we can eat within our society. And this is happening in Japan currently. And they have a brand of pork called Eco Pork, which is a premium brand of pork, because these are high welfare animals that are very happy. And so Japanese consumers pay slightly more for the food waste fed pork. So there's different things we could do there. The other thing we could be doing is actually thinking about valorisation. So we take our coffee bean, and we extract the coffee oil from it, we extract the pectins, we extract all these different things from industry based unavoidable food waste, and transform those into new products we can sell. So there's lots of different things you can do both up the supply chain, but at the household level, do recycle, do compost, if possible, and do get in touch with your municipal government to actually see what is possible in your municipality.

Chris McElwain: Sometimes interventions only work on one part of the problem, not the other part of the problem.

Christian Reynolds: Very much so. It's a definite tension in terms of both reducing food waste, but also using and treating food if it is wasted in the best possible way. And that's a big tension around climate change as well, because we're wanting to reduce the amount of food waste and focus on the high carbon, high cost food wastes there. And this is about policy coherence. And what we're working on at the Center for Food Policy is saying that all of these different policy goals try and align through the different policies that governments produce globally.

Chris McElwain: If you had a magic wand, and you could change anything about food systems, what would you be looking to do with your magic powers?

Christian Reynolds: Right. Thank you, Chris, that's a good thing to end on. I think if I was to have a magic wand for Australia, and Australian consumers or citizens, I would say get everybody to check their fridge and turn it down to five degrees centigrade. If I was having a magic wand for the entire world food system, I would probably change it so that we have higher wages for women farmers globally, because 70% of the global food is produced in rural or non large scale production. And a large number of those are female farmers. And so having a more just amount of food, or a more just payment for that would bring a lot of people out of poverty and enable lots of positive health outcomes and community outcomes across the globe. And that would also lead to less food waste happening and less food loss throughout the world in terms of different other structural things happening, and so empowering and paying more to female farmers would be the big silver bullet I could have there. Pay more to all farmers, but definitely more to female farmers as well.

Chris McElwain: Yes. And I think in terms of my own magic powers, I'd be looking to learn from the UK experience, and leapfrog the 14 years of the Courtauld Commitments and say, perhaps Australia should be adding in legislation to bring forward reporting on food loss and food waste. We invest a lot of money here in our research and development corporations in the various parts of our agricultural sectors. And that reporting could be supported through the RDC’s, and that's looking at saving food. I think in terms of opportunities for better managing the wasted food, we could roll out the compulsory food and food organics collection, and then divert that away from landfill through our municipal councils. And roll that out right across Australia. Many councils are already taking that action but that would be two steps, one dealing with saving food, and one dealing with better managing wasted food and rolling that up with a national education campaign of the kind like Love Food, Hate Waste. All right, we're getting close to the end. So let's try and end on a positive note. Christian, what do you think our prospects are, either in the UK or in Australia, for achieving our 2030 targets of halving food waste?

Christian Reynolds: I think it's going to be a big challenge. But I think Australia, the UK, and the world is up to that. So I don't think if I can be doom and gloom, I think globally, it's going to be a real struggle to hit that 2030 SDG target. But I think Australia and the UK are on the track to measure what is wasted, quantify it and have that business case, because what gets measured, as you've just said, gets managed, and we can highlight now that it's a carbon impact and economic impact, a water impact and a social impact. So, all of these different reasons, we need to sort out food waste. And we have shown with our different reports that we have the capacity to be able to change the world by reducing our food waste, that's a great positive. And we can actually do this by 2030.

Chris McElwain: I agree, I think it is possible. We're going to have to work very, very hard to get there everybody's going to have to lean in and all sectors of the Australian food system will have to be working hard to save food and better manage wasted food. So for those of you who are at home, now you know why Christian is one of the global rock stars of food waste research. You can join me in cyberspace in thanking Christian. Thank you very much, Christian for joining us very early in the morning, and I look forward to seeing more of your work in the future.

Christian Reynolds: Thank you very much.

Ann Mossop: Thanks for listening. For more information, visit, and don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Christian Reynolds

Christian Reynolds

Dr Christian Reynolds is Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Food Policy, City University, London; and is the Senior Tutor for Research at the Centre for Food Policy. 
Christian is recognised as a global expert on food waste and sustainable diets. He has worked on these issues in Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, the UK, US, and Europe. He is the lead editor of the Routledge Handbook of Food Waste; he has also co-authored over 50 peer reviewed publications, as well as multiple reports and book chapters. Christian has given evidence to UK and NZ parliaments on food waste and contributed to the Food Loss and Waste Accounting and Reporting Standard. Christian also researches sustainable cookery; food history; and the political power of food in international relations.

Chris McElwain

Chris McElwain

Chris McElwain is a Teaching Fellow and PhD Candidate in the Faculty of Law and Justice at UNSW. His research explores issues of sustainability and regulatory theory, focusing on waste prevention and resource recovery.  

His PhD is investigating the challenges of wasted food with a view to finding effective ways for Australia to save more food and better manage the food it cannot avoid wasting.  His approach is supported by more than 20 years’ experience in designing and using environmental regulatory systems. He was a lawyer for the New South Wales Environment Protection Authority, the main government environmental regulator for NSW, for more than 10 years and helped design NSW's main pollution prevention and waste control laws in the late 1990's. He was subsequently a senior manager in the EPA's waste and resource recovery team for more than 10 years. 

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