Food waste increases as people go hungry

by Dr Scott Drimie, view this article, originally posted in Business Day, here

It’s absurd to think that farmers today produce about 50% more food than is necessary to feed the world’s population yet hunger remains such a pervasive issue in so many parts of the world.

SA is a net exporter of food, and yet millions in this country do not know where their next meal will come from. With one in five South African households deemed food insecure, it’s no less than tragic that about a third of food produced in SA — 9-million tonnes a year — goes to waste.

Without diminishing the importance of efficient agriculture, it must be acknowledged that the issue of hunger in SA and elsewhere is closely linked to the issue of waste.

Wasting food that could otherwise have met the needs of the poor is a missed opportunity to tackle social ills in a cost-effective and environmentally sound manner.

While the causes of hunger and malnutrition are complex and varied and can by no means be attributed solely to food waste, we can’t ignore the fact that children are going to school hungry while tonnes of food are being destroyed. The redistribution of food that would otherwise have been wasted to those who need it has the potential to play an important role in tackling the country’s social challenges. It’s more than this, however. We must understand why waste occurs and its underlying effect.

The largest proportion of food wasted in SA consists of fruit and vegetables with a whopping 47% (4.4 million tonnes) wasted annually, followed by cereals with 27% (2.5 million tonnes) wasted. Interestingly, a comparatively small proportion of waste — though certainly not an insignificant measure — occurs in homes. It differs depending on the sort of food, but the bulk of waste occurs on farms, in storage and in the manufacturing and distribution process.

Food waste represents a squandering of associated high-value resources resulting in a net negative effect on both the environment and the economy.

With 62% of available water used for irrigation in SA, water loss as a result of food waste is equivalent to close on a quarter of the country’s total water footprint, making food waste avoidance an especially important sustainability issue in our water scarce region.

A 2013 report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN suggests that if food waste were a country, it would rank as the third-highest emitter of carbon emissions.

Food waste also influences food prices. On-farm losses can threaten the financial sustainability of growers. It’s estimated that the cost to society associated with food waste in SA is equivalent to 2% of the country’s GDP. With that measure of impact, it’s little wonder that the wages on farms and in food wholesale and retail sectors are so low and that food prices continue to rise.

It is clear that diversion of the significant volumes of edible food waste generated by the food system towards those who are undernourished has the potential to improve on food security and improve on economic and environmental security.

Retailers have significant influence both up and down the value chain. They are relatively low in number and high in influence and have economic incentives to minimise food loss and waste within their operations.

There are numerous adjustments to be made by responsible retailers ranging from improved packaging and cold chain management to improved labelling, accuracy of ordering, discounted sales of produce that is nearing its sell-by date, use of products approaching “best before” in soups and juices, discounted sales and donations of surplus fresh produce to charities, and so on. Several South African retailers are already making strides in this regard.

However, we should also question whether we can expect to solve this through creating a secondary food market for the poor, increasingly dependent on charitable food banking? At the individual level, by resisting the temptation to buy more than we need and ensuring we steward what we do buy, we can greatly reduce the food that ends up in the bin.

A multilevel approach to reducing food waste that questions the dominant food system is the only viable solution to the unacceptable status quo.