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Food Waste Leaves Millions Hungry

Globally, we produce more food than is needed to feed everyone on the planet. Carolyn de Kock investigates ways to reduce the amount we waste.
Image: ©iStock Image: ©iStock

Oxfam International estimates that around 13 million people in South Africa suffer hunger on a regular basis. Yet we are a net exporter of food, and one of the few countries globally to produce more than enough to feed the population.

The problem, according to a Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) study, is that we throw away a third of all our food. It’s not just us – food waste is recognised as a global issue, and, despite many valiant efforts, it is on the rise. But in South Africa we have a bigger problem than most.

Researchers for the Waste and Recycling Action Programme (WRAP) reckon the UK throws away 7.3 million tonnes of food that could have been eaten every year. Here, the CSIR believes South Africa is producing a gob-smacking nine to 10 million tonnes of food waste annually. That’s around 30% of all agricultural production in South Africa.

One of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is to wipe out hunger by 2030, and, in order to do that, researchers estimate we will need to increase global food production by 70%. But something doesn’t add up. Why produce more food just so we can waste more?

“Food security is about more than just producing enough. It’s about accessibility and affordability,” says the CSIR’s principal researcher on food waste, Dr Suzan Oelofse.

Are consumers to blame?

The CSIR reports that household food waste alone amounts to about R21.7-billion per annum, roughly 0.82% of South Africa’s annual GDP. But what is lost across the entire system of agricultural production, storage and manufacturing totals R61.5-billion per annum. The biggest issues are in transportation and distribution, which account for 32% of all the waste.

Kate Hamilton is the Fund Development Manager for FoodForward SA, an NGO that collects food beyond its best-before date from major supermarkets and distributes it to over 600 other organisations who work with quarter of a million people in need. She says there’s a high degree of awareness of the issue within the big chains.

“South African retailers have been fantastic,” Hamilton says, “Often we’re helping them out too, as they’d have to pay to have the food destroyed.”

Consumers aren’t off the hook, however. “Food wastage occurring before the consumption stage is often a result of consumer behaviour,” says Oelofse. For example, by favouring perfect-looking fruits and vegetables, deformed products are removed early on in the supply chain. Imperfect products cannot be machine-processed, and are often left to rot, together with unavoidable waste including bones, skins and pips.

Understanding ‘best before’ dates

Date codes are the most-reported reason for consumers wasting food. According to the University of Pretoria, fruit and  vegetables account for the most waste in Gauteng households, followed by cereals and breads, then dairy and meat.

A best-before date is about quality rather than safety, though. Just because a product is past it’s best-before date doesn’t mean that it is unsafe for consumption. Some fruit may not be as firm, but could even taste better.

A use-by date, however, is more of a hard guess at when a food will have gone off, but even here it’s not a hard and fast rule. Processed and frozen foods might last well beyond their use-by date, but there are implications for commercial use. A household may extend the shelf life of bread by freezing it beyond the expiry date, but a restaurant would be opening itself up to trouble.

Oelofse’s research shows that most date labels focus on aesthetics, and have nothing to do with food safety. “There is a need for awareness among consumers to understand labelling, and a review of how date labels are determined.”

France passed a law in February 2016 to prohibit supermarkets from throwing away food that is still fit for consumption. Implementing similar legislation in South Africa would require strict enforcement, something of which we don’t have a good history. Even if we could, charities often don’t have the means to transport piles of unconsumed food. If even a single beneficiary fell ill from donated food, the legal ramifications would spell disaster for donor retailers or restaurants.

Another part of the problem in South Africa is cultural. We are a nation that loves gigantic portions, and we love to entertain. That often means piles of food left over and families purchasing too much in advance, in case of an unexpected visitor.

What can be done?

Strengthening the supply chain is going to make the most difference. In the book Food Foolish: The Hidden Connection Between Food Waste, Hunger and Climate Change, John Mandyck and Eric Schultz suggest simple things, such as encouraging farmers in places such as Kenya to use crates instead of burlap bags to transport soft foods such as tomatoes, preventing them from bruising on the way to market. Through direct support for farmers, government and retailers can help with investments in infrastructure, access to finance and technology, and education on post-harvest storage and packaging techniques. Less waste also means more money for farmers.

“Without the technology, expertise and understanding necessary to keep their harvest fresh, smallholder farmers are often locked into a cycle of poverty, unable to access global markets,” says Dr Lisa Kitinoja, founder of the Postharvest Education Foundation.

But perhaps the biggest difference can be made in investing in the “cold” supply chain, the network of refrigerated trucks and storage facilities needed to bring fresh food from farm to market. A paper published by a team at Nottingham University in the UK calculated that lack of access to cold chain technology is a major reason for crops perishing after harvest.

India, for example, produces 28% of the world’s bananas, but represents just 0.3% of all internationally traded bananas. If India had a better cold chain infrastructure, the number of bananas exported could grow from 4 000 to 190 000 containers per year, providing an additional 95 000 jobs and benefiting as many as 34 600 smallholder farms.

The Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) estimates that a quarter of food waste in all developing countries could be eliminated through use of refrigeration equipment.

In the meantime, there are less-costly measures which also represent economic opportunities. For example, small businesses could take on the manual processing of imperfect fruits and vegetables that can’t be machine-processed, suggests Oelofse. Municipalities can implement waste-transformation systems, generating compost to feed back into agriculture, as is being trialled at the Cape Town Fresh Produce Market.

And for consumers, the best advice is to plan meals before you go to the shops, and be careful with portion sizes (which is the best advice for healthy eating too).  And use food that is closest to expiry first.

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