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The average Australian wastes 200kg of food a year - yet two million of us also go hungry. Why?

Globally, more than 800 million people are chronically undernourished. And some of these people live in Australia. Of course, these people do not live in desperate refugee camps; and most do not endure…

The not-for-profit Foodbank Australia represents one of the largest distributors of food to hungry Australians. But what is the role of government? AAP

Globally, more than 800 million people are chronically undernourished. And some of these people live in Australia.

Of course, these people do not live in desperate refugee camps; and most do not endure long periods of famine and destitution. Yet, last year alone, some two million Australians reported there have been times when they have run out of food and could not afford to buy more.

It may appear contradictory to write about hunger when a large proportion of the Australian population tries to reduce calorie intake. But a more perplexing question is why hunger, although a growing problem in Australia, is neglected in a country which in aggregate terms is food secure.

Recent research indicates that 75% of Australians believe their country is immune to poverty and as such do not think of hunger as a problem. Pressures from high cost of living, whether housing or food prices, lock vulnerable households into the poverty cycle which has changed the face of hunger in Australia, increasingly affecting the aged, single households and the “working poor”. Hunger is an attribute of poverty and deprivation.

Food waste has dramatic environmental consequences. AAP

The pantry of Australia’s national food relief effort is a low profile outfit called Foodbank, a national operation using a big business model to channel surplus food from the food and grocery industry onto welfare networks.

Its board members - including prominent Perth executive Peter Mansell - come mostly from high profile private sector executive positions, while its operations resemble a highly efficient distribution network with centres in all major capital cities.

The donors, food producers, manufacturers and retailers, supply Foodbank with excess or surplus food that would have been otherwise disposed off into landfill.

The food is then dispatched from Foodbank distribution centres to welfare agencies on a cost-recovery basis (a nominal service fee), to ultimately reach people in need. On the supply side, donating surplus food not only reduces food companies warehousing costs but eases expenditure associated with dumping food in landfills as well as attracting tax deductibility.

Despite the important expression of community altruism and other frontline welfare agencies, the problem of hunger is far from being solved. In 2011, Foodbank distributed 21 million kilograms of donated food and groceries, making the equivalent of 28 million meals to help 75,000 people a day through a network of 2,500 welfare agencies.

Foodbank relies upon a workforce of 3,500 volunteers to operate its warehouses across the country. From five million kilograms of food donated in 2003 the organisation is now moving more than 20 million kilograms and is hoping to increase its distribution to 50 million kilograms in 2015.

Occasionally, state governments and councils provide grants for specific projects but largely, the organisation survives on donations. Only recently the Australian government has started to contribute $1 million a year to assist Foodbank in providing vulnerable Australians with what most of us consider as a human right, the right to safe and nutritious food.

This should prompt some hard questions. It is common for liberal market economies to off-load welfare responsibilities from federal and state governments to the voluntary sector and Australia is no exception.

Some view increasing inequality and poverty as the unavoidable flip side of a globalised capitalism and as such the domestic politics of globalisation have increasingly sold the message that governments have limited control. Therefore expectations must be lowered about what is politically possible.

But allowing hunger to be de-politicised in this way fosters the notion that it should fall to non-government organisations to answer pressing social problems, while governments are best at fostering self-reliance and self-provision.

The silence of the Australian government around domestic food security not only confirms its denial of the issue, but indicates a failing welfare system.

Also at issue is the environmental consequences of rampant food wastage. It is now reported that about 4.5 million tonnes (200kg per person) of food are wasted every year in Australia. The annual retail value of Australian food waste is estimated at more than $5 billion.

Among the reasons at the supply end are blemishes or imperfections, over-ordering or short shelf life, while consumers demand perfectly shaped products and plan their pantries poorly.

This wastage has significant ramifications. For instance, dumping a kilogram of beef means wasting the 50,000 litres of water used in its production. Some 47% of municipal waste in landfill is food and green organic waste. Food waste in Australian landfills is the second largest source of methane emission – a gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. If one tonne of food waste generates 3.8 tonnes of CO₂ equivalent emission, then Australian food waste is responsible for 15 million tonnes of CO₂ equivalent emissions every year.

Fighting global hunger is paramount, but we must recognise hunger issues here. AAP

Despite this happening in its own backyard, Australian policy makers still have ambitions to contribute to global food security initiatives.

Australia continues to be a vocal advocate for global food security through its association with international institutions, such as the UN but also the World Bank, IMF or the WTO. For instance, the 2010 budget committed $464 million over four years to assist countries in Asia, Africa, and in the Pacific region to build community resilience and improve agricultural productivity.

But if Australia refuses to consider hunger as an issue of public policy and continues to consistently undermine adequate financial assistance to its own people, a nagging question remains about the nature of its ambitions for addressing food security beyond its shores.

While fighting global hunger in the developing world is of paramount importance, it is also vital to recognise that hunger in the developed world must be understood as an attribute of primary poverty and a form of relative deprivation. The evidence is unequivocal.

Inadequate welfare benefits are the immediate cause of hunger in Australia. Australia is signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (United Nations, 1996) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (United Nations, 1989, 1990), both of which commit ratifying governments to meet the basic needs of their citizens.

How should we understand the Federal Government’s proclamation of rights to adequate food, clothing and shelter in international law, while hungry Australians are receiving support from privately run charity organisations?

If the problem of hunger in wealthy and technologically advanced Australia is to be eliminated, it must be recognised as a political question and a fundamental issue of human rights and distributive justice.

Join the conversation

34 Comments sorted by

  1. Tim Siegenbeek van Heukelom

    PhD Candidate, Centre for International Security Studies

    Brigit, good that you bring this to the attention. Too many people take our 'culture of contentment' for granted, rather than see it as a privilege. The affluent minority that comfortably enjoys the riches of consumerist democracy seems to interpret the human right to food as an all-out entitlement to unrestricted consumption of any kind of food, at any given time, in any quantity, with any frequency, for almost incredibly low prices.

    It is indeed time that we reconsider this form of consumption…

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    1. Andrew Hack

      IT Project Manager

      In reply to Tim Siegenbeek van Heukelom

      As nice as it sounds to assert that access to food is a 'fundamental right' the fact is that someone has to pay or provide for it. Thus, you cannot assert those socialist/collectivist ideals of distributive justice while holding to the principles of liberty and private property.

      But what about the people that are going hungry due to circumstances that are entirely their fault? If one puts conditions on the distribution then can you still call that a 'fundamental right'? Or is defining what is…

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    2. Will Hardy

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Andrew Hack

      I would be careful about seeing the world in such black and white terms. No circumstances are entirely the fault of anyone, no man is an island, your wealth and privilege is enabled, paid for and supported by a number of other people.

      People are hungry for many combined, varied and complex reasons. It may well be that this person fuels your business' profits with their under paid work, pads your income through expensive rent and some other volunteer has donated their time and money to enable your benefit by freeing up funds for said rent.

      Just be careful using the word "theft"; wealth does not come out of thin air, it is extracted from other people who may have worked harder for it than you did.

      PS Ruling class 101: don't let the masses starve, human instinct will kick in and you'll have to deal with a revolution. The cost of keeping them alive is cheap and lets you stay in power.

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    3. Andrew Hack

      IT Project Manager

      In reply to Will Hardy

      Actually, no. Wealth is CREATED by individuals by applying their faculties to materials to create things of value. You own yourself, therefore you own what is created by your faculties. It can then be traded between other individuals, combined with the wealth of others for the purpose of producing further more wealth, or it can be freely given by one individual (or group of individuals) to another individual (or group of individuals). The latter might be referred to as charity.

      It is not feeding the hungry or giving to the needy that is objectionable. It is the means by which it is achieved. The state uses force to transfer the wealth from one group to another. Private charity involves the individual making a conscious decision. Which is more noble?

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    4. Andrew Hack

      IT Project Manager

      In reply to Will Hardy

      Who is trying to be the 'ruling class'? I am proposing principles of freedom and liberty.

      It is the others who are demanding that the wealth accumulated should be withheld from the individuals, transferred and distributed according to their whim; their personal subjective view of what they deem 'just'.

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    5. Garry Claridge

      Systems Analyst

      In reply to Andrew Hack

      Not sure why Andrew Hack believes "freedom and liberty" are mutually exclusive to the widespread sharing and distribution of basic human needs, such as food???

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    6. Andrew Hack

      IT Project Manager

      In reply to Garry Claridge

      I don't. That is why your straw man argument is dishonest and fraudulent.

      As I have stated, it the means by which this is achieved that I take issue with.

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    7. Garry Claridge

      Systems Analyst

      In reply to Andrew Hack

      Your assumptions on how this redistribution of potential waste would be achieved, appear rather odd and limited!

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    8. Andrew Hack

      IT Project Manager

      In reply to Garry Claridge

      Just the same your assumptions of how the government will solve once and for all the problems of hunger and poverty. In the contrary, the system creates the poverty by making people dependent on it as well as robbing from the middle class to do so.

      When the government steps in and assumes responsibility for something the people largely become complacent towards it. It is no longer their problem because it is the government's problem. I think you underestimate the roles churches and private charities…

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  2. Troy Barry

    Mechanical Engineer

    2 million Australians run out of food annually. 3 million Australians smoke daily. 2 million Australians drink alcohol at a risky level weekly. 2 million Australians use cannabis annually. 1.6 million Australians receive Newstart, DSP or Parenting payments. I wonder how much overlap there is in those statistics and if there is really a problem with the size of welfare payments?

    If there is much overlap then getting people into work would be a far more effective strategy to tackle hunger in Australia.

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    1. Andrew Hack

      IT Project Manager

      In reply to Troy Barry

      The 2 million figure is actually just 2 million cannabis smokers who have the munchies! :)

      And yes it would. But welfarism rewards people for not working and often even traps people who do want to work into just relying on the government.
      High tax rates (required to fund the welfarism) is also a disincentive for working.

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  3. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    The article highlights an important problem. So what's the solution?

    Busicchia suggests it's charity. We need government to intervene in the distribution of food, and to raise welfare payments.

    However, there's another approach. Starvation has been eliminated in East Asia in just a few decades. And it wasn't thanks to government food programs; It's been freeing up economies so people have higher standards of living overall.

    This has given people enough to eat, as well as dignity and control over their own lives.

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    1. Brigit Busicchia

      PhD Candidate, Political Economy at Macquarie University

      In reply to James Jenkin

      You need to read the article again!

      The solution is not charity, the solution is to offer well paid jobs to all!
      'Freeing up economies' as you call it, does not necessarily bring higher standards of living to everybody, look at Australia!

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    2. Andrew Hack

      IT Project Manager

      In reply to Brigit Busicchia

      Well paid jobs for all. Good idea!

      What better way to do this than through the free market?

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    3. justanotweet

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Andrew Hack

      What if as appears to be the case the free market is a failure as appears obvious to some

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    4. Andrew Hack

      IT Project Manager

      In reply to justanotweet

      I suggest learning Austrian theory of economics. The markets are far from being free from government interference. The 'failures' you speak of can be directly linked to government involvement.

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    5. justanotweet

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Andrew Hack

      Austria has poor people probably got hungry people to or can you point me to publication that says otherwise so why study their model that does not work, they have an unemployment problem too.
      "The 'failures' you speak of can be directly linked to government involvement." Facts please, where are they

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    6. Andrew Hack

      IT Project Manager

      In reply to justanotweet

      Austrian economic theory has nothing to do with the country. It was named as such after the economists who were originally from Austria. Namely Ludwig Von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. See:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Austrian_School#Etymology

      To do that I will need you to list some of the specific failures you had in mind as I am making assumptions.

      As an example, conventional thinking blames the free-markets for the debt-based financial crisis. However, it does not take much research at all…

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    7. Garry Claridge

      Systems Analyst

      In reply to Andrew Hack

      It is the Austrian Economics theory (i.e. free markets that will adjust to prices and demand and fix all of our woes) that is the cause of much of the market failures. Such as, poverty, ecosystems destruction, climate change, etc.

      It is both the "lag" of adjustment and the close approach to unstable boundaries of dynamic systems. Also, the increased amplitude of the "creative destruction" processes are of significant concern for the well-being of our societies and their supporting environments.

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    8. Andrew Hack

      IT Project Manager

      In reply to Garry Claridge

      You will need to a little better than just blaming everything on free markets so generally, although I do realize that it is very popular to blame climate change on many things (and blame many things on climate change) without specifying a causal link.

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  4. Bernie Masters

    environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

    I've seen this claim - "that about 4.5 million tonnes (200kg per person) of food are wasted every year in Australia" - elsewhere and I simply don't believe it. In our two person household, this equates to a kilo per day going into our rubbish bin but it simply doesn't happen. And I just don't see any evidence of such large amounts of food waste among my family, friends, etc.
    If the claim relates to food thrown out before it is made available for purchase by the consumer because of blemishes, etc, then one has to question whether our standards haven't been set too high such that it's time to lower them.
    Brigit, can you please provide the source of the 200kg/person of food wastage claim? Thanks.

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    1. Brigit Busicchia

      PhD Candidate, Political Economy at Macquarie University

      In reply to Bernie Masters

      Bernie, Thank you for bringing this up!
      Food waste happens all along the food supply chain from production to consumption, and the 200kg is an estimate that captures the waste along the chain here in Australia.
      The CEO of Foodbank, John Webster quotes it so does FoodWise, so does the FAO.
      A very interesting report produced by the FAO http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/ags/publications/GFL_web.pdf details food waste per world region and where/when it does happen. In Europe the overall food waste is around 280kg, North America + Oceania is 300kg per capita a year. Have a look and you may find some answers.

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    2. Will Hardy

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Bernie Masters

      Yes it happens all along the chain and to an extent it is hidden from view. Even if you only buy fresh fruit and vegies, you'll only see the ones that are marketable, even though blemishes don't make food less edible/enjoyable. And if you shop in a supermarket, you might notice that the fresh food display is always full, keeping that appearance means throwing away everything at the back every few days. Anything with a use by date is more likely tossed than discounted as it approaches its arbitrary date of self destruction.

      In the EU the producers have to throw away a lot of edible produce because of arbitrary EU norms. In Australia, it's not so much about standards as it is that it is cheaper for the supermarkets to throw it away than lose their "fresh" image. Especially as they use the fresh-looking produce to sell their processed food behind it.

      (Maybe the free market zealot in this thread has something to say about this phenomenon)

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    3. Andrew Hack

      IT Project Manager

      In reply to Will Hardy

      Such is the folly of government intervention that fails to see the unintended consequences. In the EU though, it is even more insidious because most of these directives have been put into place as the result of lobbying by special interests.

      For those concerned about food wastage, consider the effects of the Common Fisheries Policy:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFwQkfjENxg

      The Common Agricultural Policy is almost equally disastrous.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5LHqpzjMTDY

      Food is mostly a renewable resource so my heart doesn't bleed for every little bit that gets discarded. Certainly, though, if you look to compare the over-regulating activities of the EU with practices in Australia, it would appear that perhaps a more laissez-faire approach works better.
      And just to note, isn't the activities of FoodBank largely a free-market solution to the problem?

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  5. Bernie Masters

    environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

    Thanks for the link to the FAO report, Brigit. It states in the summary that the per capita food wastage by consumers in medium and high income countries is between 95 and 115kg and I simply find this an impossibly large number to accept, based upon my own experiences. For example, not far from where I live is one of WA's largest carrot farms and 2nd grade carrots are given away to local horse studs. The amount thus disposed of is tiny in comparison with the total carrot production. For 7 years…

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  6. Joanna Richardson

    public servant

    1. There are selfish advantages in treating access to adequate food as a human right. It helps to prevent begging and some levels of theft by desperate people. A harmonious society it nicer to live in than a highly stratified society with large inequities between the haves and the haves not. I found some of the comments disturbing in the way they assume that everyone is healthy and well educated and able to obtain a well paid job. What of the people suffering from physical or mental illness…

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    1. Brigit Busicchia

      PhD Candidate, Political Economy at Macquarie University

      In reply to Joanna Richardson

      Thank you Joanna for bringing another light, and yes I agree! some people assume that everybody is healthy, well educated and in a position to get well paid job. With these people, usually there is no room to move, you have and if you don't ,it means that you are lazy and a parasite. Compassion, understanding of human diversity is difficult to them.

      And this discourse of 'deserving' 'underserving' is frustrating. It must be acknowledged that the economy is not delivering well paid jobs for all, and for those who don't get enough income, times are hard, very hard! People forget than to be eligible to unemployment benefits one must have less than $3000 under one's name - so, how can you survive with no savings on $35/day?
      Scandinavian countries have a very comprehensive welfare system. Are they miserable for it? certainly not!

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    2. Andrew Hack

      IT Project Manager

      In reply to Joanna Richardson

      "There are selfish advantages in treating access to adequate food as a human right. It helps to prevent begging and some levels of theft by desperate people."

      I've heard the argument before but it just does not persuade me. These are very few. I am convinced that if you adhere to a free-market system you will have the most amount of wealth as a whole and you will create the biggest middle class. You will have far less people dependent on handouts. You won't remove the fact that there will be 'some' people who will be dependent but you will minimize this number.

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    3. Andrew Hack

      IT Project Manager

      In reply to Brigit Busicchia

      As a PhD Candidate I am sure you would have heard the term 'straw-man argument'?

      "some people assume that everybody is healthy, well educated and in a position to get well paid job."

      If you have to resort to dishonest arguments such as this I will be left to assume that your argument has little merit.

      I have stated many times in these comments that I have no issue with people who are GENUINELY unable to make ends meet. My issue is with the means by which this achieved.

      Daniel Hannan…

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    4. Andrew Hack

      IT Project Manager

      In reply to Andrew Hack

      With your issue #2, I think this is a problematic argument. I don't think people should feel guilty for enjoying good food. When I try to define 'wealth' I say that it is a value that you apply to a 'standard of living'. Improving people's 'standard of living' is the name of the game.

      Consider that at one time (many years ago) plumbing was something that only the very wealthy had in their house. But because the wealthy wanted it, tradesmen and businesses sprang up who would install it. They became…

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  7. wilma western

    logged in via email @bigpond.com

    A little bit of academic rigour needed - thanks Bernie. Does the wastage figure include what is collected by Foodbank and others? What about fruit that goes to juicing? What about " pick your own" when there's a bumper crop and low prices? And this article sells the soup kitchens and Salvos etc short. many families who run out of funds for no fault of their own get support from Salvos and others- without charitable works no system is likely to be able to help those who suddenly become almost destitute , and anyone who has the untimate solution for problems like addictive gambling alcoholism etc should speak up now.

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