Whatever happened to 'waste not, want not'?

14 January 2013

Professor John Crawford: "Under a business-as-usual scenario, nearly half the world's population will not have enough irrigation water for their crops by 2030."
Professor John Crawford: "Under a business-as-usual scenario, nearly half the world's population will not have enough irrigation water for their crops by 2030."

In an era of massive population growth, where food production needs to increase by 50 percent in the next 20 to 50 years to sustain the world population, up to half the food we produce never makes it to our plates.

As part of the Sydney Festival's talks program, renowned sustainability expert Professor John Crawford from the University of Sydney's Charles Perkins Centre will join a panel of experts to address the question "Whatever happened to 'waste not, want not?'" 

"The world's ability to produce food is already in decline despite our increasing demands," says Professor Crawford who holds the Judith and David Coffey Chair in Sustainability and Complex Systems at the University of Sydney.

"Under a business-as-usual scenario, nearly half the world's population will not have enough irrigation water for their crops by 2030. In addition, 40 percent of the world's agricultural soil is already degraded and, if nothing is done, soil degradation alone will reduce food production by 40 percent over the next 20 to 50 years."

The University of Sydney with its strong belief in the role of the arts, culture and the life of the mind is once again a major partner of the Sydney Festival 2013. This is the fourth year the University of Sydney and the Sydney Festival have joined forces to present the Sydney Festival program - a thought-provoking and fun selection of the world's biggest and best performing and visual arts, including dance, theatre, music, talks and free events.

In this special free Sydney Festival panel discussion Professor Crawford will say that with the added energy, land, water and biodiversity loss involved in food production, the consequences of throwing away platefuls of uneaten food are more serious than just a waste of money.

"Nearly 40 percent of the earth's surface is used for agriculture. Food wastage means we have to clear more land for agriculture, which is the main contributor to global biodiversity loss and the current mass extinction. By asking more from our soil, we are accelerating soil degradation, which can also become a health issue."

"Food derives its nutritional value from the soil in which it grows, and degraded soil means lower levels of important micronutrients like selenium, iodine and iron in our food. About 60 percent of the world's population currently have micronutrient deficiencies, and modern varieties of grains and vegetables have around 50 per cent lower micro-nutritional density. We breed plants to survive in degraded environments, but this can just lead to further degradation and less healthy food," says Professor Crawford.

"Of course, when you throw food away, you are also throwing away all these nutrients."

Professor Crawford says if soil runs out, there's no replacement, and we're losing soil on average about 30 times faster than it's being made. While all of this may sound bleak, the good news, according to Professor Crawford, is that there is win-win solution to our soil and food sustainability woes.

"Probably more than population, the biggest threat to food security is consumption," he says.

"If we can change our dietary habits we could solve the issues in a blink. Eating unhealthy food may be more wasteful than throwing it out. A healthier diet, one with a more balanced mix of grains, leaves, pulses and meat, would actually use put less pressure on our land.

"Consumers can drive this positive change by making healthier choices and wasting much less food. By fully pricing the health and environmental costs into the food system, money saved on health bills could be diverted to help resource farmers to regenerate the landscape and to incentivise production of healthier food."

At the end of the day, Professor Crawford says, urban consumer demand will drive change in rural Australia.

"By increasing awareness of why the quality of food matters and how production methods can regenerate the environment, we create a demand for better food and production methods from our agriculture."

Professor Crawford leads the University of Sydney's Master of Sustainability course, a cross-disciplinary course which aims to equip professionals with the technological, commercial, legal, governmental and social skills needed to promote sustainability in their industries and deal with these interconnected opportunities.

Event details

What: Whatever Happened to 'Waste Not, Want Not': a panel discussion, part of Sydney Festival 2013

When: 7pm, Thursday 17 January

Where: City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney 

Cost: Free, registration required 

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