Mottainai! A Japanese approach to food waste

What Australia can learn from a philosophical approach to sustainable food policy

Siena Hopkinson

Society and culture | Asia, East Asia, Australia

4 October 2019

A cultural shift towards the concept of mottainai or “what a waste!” could assist Australia’s pressing climate change challenges, Siena Hopkinson writes.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals have urged the need to halve global food waste by 2030.

If we are to accomplish such a target, Australia’s food system, and our consumer attitudes surrounding waste, are in urgent need of reform; Japan offers a fascinating petri dish of mechanisms which are used to attempt this and from which we should take note.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on Climate Change and Land Use released in August, highlights the centrality of reducing meat consumption, and revolutionising land use, for tackling climate change.

For Australians who see the barbecue as the pinnacle of our summer culture, this may present an affront to national identity. Nevertheless, underpinning this headline issue of excessive meat consumption lie deeper fallacies within our current food system.

Australia wastes approximately one fifth of all the food that we produce.

This organic waste itself not only contributes to emissions, but with it we are discarding all too precious resources of the land, labour, freshwater and fossil fuels that have gone into its production and transportation.

More importantly, such wasted food would be far better placed going to the alarming numbers of Australians suffering from food insecurity.

From a purely economic standpoint, such food waste costs the Australian economy approximately $20 billion annually. The Commonwealth Government has recognised these issues within the National Food Waste Strategy launched in 2017, yet action taken under this policy remains limited.

A vast proportion of food waste occurs at the supermarket, pantry and plate (or consumer-controlled) end of the distribution chain. Accordingly, we are in urgent need of a critical reform in our consumerist culture and dietary attitudes.

In Japan, an island heavily dependent on agricultural imports, waste carries a deep social stigma of guilt and regret, encapsulated in the phrase mottainai– translated roughly as, ‘what a waste!’

This cultural attitude may be understood as partly stemming from the post – World War Two epoch of austerity. During which every ounce of resources, time and manpower were to be put towards nation-building. Especially, combined with tenets of Shintoism and Buddhism in Japan that espouse a deep respect for material objects.

The more laissez-faire Australian public would do well to embrace the mottainai sentiment.

More on this: A wave of water crises hit Asia

Governments are key to shaping attitudinal reform.

The Japanese Government has implemented the Shoku- Iku Food Education Law since 2005. The policy mandates education on the origins of food, and basic nutritional guidelines amongst primary school children, and promotes the selection of local, seasonal produce to the broader population.

In considering the feasibility of replicating this approach in Australia, we must question the differing levels of willingness of our public to submit to governmental controls upon diets and consumer liberties.

However, given the social repercussions of poor dietary choices, including the public health costs of increasing levels of non-infectious diseases, there is a public impetus here to impinge upon individual choice.

Comparable NGO initiatives to the Shoku-Iku policy, such as OzHarvest’s FEAST initiative, which seeks to teach children about sustainability, food waste and nutrition, and education campaigns such as Craig Reucassel’s ‘War on Waste’ are cultivating grassroot followings in schools and communities across Australia.

We should support these initiatives, and extend them nationally.

As for agricultural practices, Japanese concepts of satoyama and satoumi again offer eminent examples of land management.

Satoyama denotes the carefully managed village agricultural regions that seek to maintain a sustainable socio-ecological balance, through drawing on traditional ecological knowledge.

Satoumi is the corresponding concept for coastal ecosystems. Whilst both regions are under threat in Japan, there is a renewed interest to preserve them, and the traditional knowledge behind them, to ensure ongoing biodiversity, food security and agricultural/fishing communities’ sustainability.

Given the precarious nature of the Australian agricultural landscape, developing a similar respect for and knowledge of land capacities, in collaboration with Indigenous landowners, would go far.

Such careful land management is increasingly important with the onset of climate change, catalysing declining yields and increasing extreme climatic events, further threatening our food security.

It must be noted that the situation in Japan is far from perfect. Cultural preoccupations with freshness and attention to detail lead to high levels of food disposal and disposable plastic packaging in supermarkets, which fly in the face of guilt around waste.

The ‘one-third rule’ of thumb in the Japanese supermarket industry sees food being disposed often well before it reaches its use by date. Moreover, much of the meat consumed in Japan is imported from Australia, and thus our landscape disproportionately bears the scars of producing it.

Consequently, there is a strong impetus for regional collaboration to change dietary preferences, reform our agricultural systems and reduce food waste.

As we look towards collaborating, Japan, with its greater cultural awareness and deep conscientiousness when it comes to food policy, leaves us with plenty of food for thought.

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