There are 795 million hungry people on Earth. The world produces more food than its human population needs. Between the farm, the processing plant, the retailer and the home, the world discards one-third of all food intended for human consumption.

In Australia, we throw out the equivalent of one in every five bags of groceries we take home. Tens of thousands of us rely on charitable food relief.

Apart from consumers wasting money, producing food that goes to waste accounts for a massive loss of resources, such as energy, water and human labour. After disposal, food rotting in landfill releases potent greenhouse gases.

What did the French do?

At the end of the day, ‘dumpster divers’ scavenge food from supermarket bins. It happens all over the world. In France, supermarket owners were concerned dumpster divers might get sick from eating contaminated food and sue. So supermarkets started pouring bleach in their dumpsters to ward off the divers.

Parisian councillor Arash Derambarsh thought this was “scandalous and absurd”. He proposed large supermarkets donate all their excess stock to food rescue agencies.

Why won’t the French system work in Australia?

France’s law sounds great but there are some translation problems when applying it to the Australian context. France is rushing to regulate because they are several steps behind Australia when it comes to dealing with food waste.

All the major supermarkets in Australia have partnerships with food rescue agencies like OzharvestSecondbiteFareshare and Foodbank as part of their corporate social responsibility strategies. These organisations redistribute surplus supermarket food to charities that feed those in need. Unlike their French counterparts and French supermarkets, Australian food rescue agencies are protected by Good Samaritan Laws, which afford them certain safeguards against litigation.

A spokesperson for the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) said, “There is enormous goodwill and partnership between industry and agencies to ensure that charities receive food products that are needed – not just what is left over.

“Any proposed legislative intervention will need to guard against any unintended outcome where food companies may be forced to send charities excess stock that is not required. This could place greater burden on charities which are currently subject to dumping charges.”

Elaine Montegriffo, CEO of food rescue agency Secondbite said, “If supermarkets are doing it of their own free will, rather than as a matter of compliance, it is far more likely to work out for the charity”.

Imagine a large shipment of mislabelled muesli bars arrives at a supermarket and can’t be sold. If Australia were to implement a similar law to France, the supermarket can choose to pass on the bars for animal feed or compost, or give them to a food rescue agency. But if the agency has already reached its logistical limit for transport and storage and can’t find a charity to take the bars, it still has to pay for that transport, storage and most likely the disposal of the bars.

Montegriffo would rather serious policy than a mandate on supermarkets. “I would like food waste and food security to sit in somebody’s portfolio,” she said.

The Australian way isn’t perfect

The Australian system might be ahead of France’s but it still has a long way to go. To see the full picture of food waste in the Australian supply chain we need to pull our head out of the back-of-store dumpsters. We need to encourage suppliers, processors and retailers to increase supply chain efficiencies.

Supermarkets often use the visual merchandising tactic of purposefully over-ordering to maintain an aesthetic of abundance. Shelves that look full are more appealing to shoppers, even though supermarkets can dump contracts with farmers on a whim.

With Coles and Woolworths accounting for a 70% share of the market, Australia has one of the most highly concentrated retail grocery sectors in the world. This is problematic for a number of reasons. These practices can lead to massive and unnecessary waste. The emotional, economic and environmental costs of binning the excess produce lies with farmers, not supermarkets.

Where to from here?

While 90 percent of Australia’s food charities report that they do not have enough food to meet the demand for their services, relying on waste to feed the hungry is not a sustainable solution. Our ultimate goal should be to eliminate food waste and food want.

We don’t need to follow France’s new regulatory measures, but we can learn a few things from their consumer education. In addition to its new laws for big supermarkets, France will soon roll out education programs on food waste for schools and businesses. Australia should take note. We can learn to eat in-season produce, no matter how it looks when it grows. Those wonky cucumbers and two legged carrots are just fine. We can shop smarter and buy the right amount of food, and we can re-learn kitchen skills so food and leftovers are used rather than thrown away.

Last week, Environment Minister Greg Hunt announced a multi-partisan dialogue to develop a National Food Waste 2025 Strategy. France’s consumer education is a good start, but let’s hope Hunt’s strategy addresses the full complexity of the problem. This includes improved monitoring of food waste, investment in infrastructure to process it outside landfill, competition laws to help diversify the grocery sector, support of alternative food distribution networks, and fairer relationships between farmers and supermarkets.