South Africa’s food crisis – avoidable, unnecessary and reaching epidemic proportions

Households are drowning in a relentless spiral of debt, high interest rates, various living costs increases, food price inflation, anxiety and desperation as they are forced to make impossible choices with meagre financial resources.

To try to put food on the table in these strenuous circumstances, vulnerable households are buying cheaper, less-nutritious and sometimes less-safe food, as recent media reports have highlighted, while others survive by eating less and skipping meals altogether. Acute levels of hunger and starvation are rising sharply all over our country, leading to malnutrition, which, sadly, goes largely undetected in poor communities.

South Africa is facing myriad crises. These include the slow and very unequal post-pandemic recovery; high unemployment; the stinging cost-of-living crisis affecting millions of households; an inept government and poorly performing state-owned enterprises; and externalities such as shocks related to climate events, global market dynamics and the like.

These crises negatively influence our country’s food availability and food affordability dynamics, which inevitably disproportionately affects the poor, resulting in our current food crisis of epidemic proportions. To further contextualise this: we have the highest incidence of child malnutrition in the world; the highest rate of youth unemployment in the world; a basic healthy food basket costs about R4,500, while the average household income is much less than this; we have more than 18 million people on social grants which are grossly inadequate to meet their dietary needs and living expenses; and our economy can’t grow fast enough to exit people out of poverty and unemployment.

Paradoxically, we have more than enough food in South Africa to feed everyone since we have a net surplus. Equally bizarre, more than 10 million tonnes of all the food that is produced is lost or wasted along the food value chain from farm to fork, due to various supply chain weaknesses that are out of their control. Unless we take some key actions now to address our food crisis, we are likely to face increasing social unrest, like the July 2021 riots in KwaZulu-Natal, but on a more grandiose and destructive scale, from which we may never fully recover.

In general, South Africa has failed to capitalise on this golden opportunity that offers several benefits: (1) Timeously recover this mostly edible surplus food across the value chain to cost-effectively address malnutrition and food insecurity at scale (2) By diverting food away from landfill we will reduce the impact of food loss and waste on the environment (3) The resultant economic, social and health benefits of creating a surplus food ecosystem.

For this to be realised, we need the national government to introduce regulations that promote food donations; change the public’s incorrect perception of what surplus food is; clarify which foods may be donated for food system representatives; and create a framework that integrates these recommendations across relevant government departments.

Wasted opportunities

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, food systems account for an estimated 30% to 34% of global greenhouse gas emissions. A 2023 study by the International Food Policy Research Institute on the Economic Effects of Reducing Food Loss and Waste in Nigeria, Kenya and Bangladesh demonstrated that halving food loss and waste results in GDP increases of between 1.1% and 2%, with up to 13 million people lifted out of poverty.

Several countries have recently implemented legislation to promote food donations and make dumping of edible surplus food illegal (France and Italy), while other countries are in the process of drafting regulatory changes to reduce food loss and waste as a climate-mitigation strategy.

South Africa, despite being a signatory to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG 12.3, which refers to sustainable consumption and production, with a target to halve food loss and waste by 2030, has not made any regulatory amendments to date to achieve this goal.

As hardship persists across South Africa, the chasm of inequality will continue to widen, leading to millions of (especially young) people who are unemployed, starving, angry and desperate. Desperate people with nothing also have nothing to lose. Unless we take some key actions now to address our food crisis, we are likely to face increasing social unrest, like the July 2021 riots in KwaZulu-Natal, but on a more grandiose and destructive scale, from which we may never fully recover.

As we mark the UN’s World Food Day on 16 October 2023, FoodForward SA calls on President Cyril Ramaphosa and his office to consider the urgent implementation of food donation regulations, and to consult more broadly and meaningfully around solutions and strategic actions towards an inclusive Food and Nutrition Security Plan, one which involves food system industry representatives and civil society organisations addressing food insecurity.

Andy du Plessis is the managing director of FoodForward SA. This article was first published on The Daily Maverick on 16 October 2023.