The law must change to enable donation of tonnes of food going to waste

It is estimated that a staggering one in five South African households is food insecure with more than 13 million South Africans routinely experiencing hunger. This, in contravention of our Constitution, which enshrines access to food as a right.

In light of this and of our commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which include ending poverty in all its forms (SDG 1), ending hunger and achieving food security and improved nutrition (SDG 2), and ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns, including the aim to “halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer level, and reducing food losses along production and supply chains by 2030” (SDG 12), it is inconceivable that about a third of the food produced in South Africa goes to waste every year.

Surplus food is food that is still perfectly edible and safe for human consumption, but will not be eaten because it has either failed to meet aesthetic standards, or has surpassed its sell by date. This food is most often treated as waste and diverted, at worst, to landfill sites, or else used for composting, converted to biofuels, or used as animal feed.

Diversion of food surplus to landfill sites is the worst-case scenario for a number of reasons. Landfills are potent producers of methane, a gas which has around 30 times more global warming effect than carbon dioxide. Unfortunately in South Africa this is where around 90% of overall food waste ends up.

Food Forward, a waste diversion NGO that recovers and redistributes surplus food from the consumer goods supply chain, managed the donation of 4,400 tonnes of food in the past year, saving an estimated 17,400 tonnes of CO2e. Put another way, they prevented the equivalent of the emissions produced by the annual electricity usage of 6000 households.

In short, the GHG effect of food waste in landfill sites is both significant and largely avoidable, but only if surplus food is separated at the point at which it is considered not ‘fit for sale’ via traditional channels, and redistributed before it deteriorates.

WWF South Africa recently produced a report titled Surplus foods from farms to firms to forks, which presents the business case for the redistribution of surplus food. The report, which is funded by the International Climate Initiative (IKI) of the Federal Ministry for the Environment of Germany, argues that framing edible food waste as surplus food reorients the discussion towards the potential of this food as food for human consumption, rather than as an energy source, animal feed, compost or a waste.

One of the reasons that so much of the surplus food generated in SA ends up as waste is that the majority of farms and food firms are not geared for identifying, removing and redirecting it.

Much of the surplus food in South Africa that is generated ends up as food waste because most farms and food firms do not consistently identify, remove, or redirect it. An additional factor is that of date labeling which may artificially shorten food use.

While consumers should take care not to waste food, research shows that food waste by consumers is by far the smallest share along the value chain at only 5%. In a hungry country, little food is wasted by individuals with affluent consumers giving left over food to domestic workers, gardeners, street children and the homeless, and so the primary focus of surplus food strategies should be on farmers and food firms.

In addition to ethical considerations around hunger and carbon emissions, there is a business case to be made for the diversion of surplus food. Landfill sites charge major users a gate fee, and this, together with the preceding waste management processes (including sorting, removal of packaging and transport), means that waste comes at a cost.

There is a significant opportunity for firms to sell or donate surplus foods. South Africa’s retail sector is best primed to have a real impact on food waste in the short term. At this stage of the value chain, food is already prepared and packaged for consumption. Retailers have a broad geographic reach and the existence of a few dominant retailers means fewer partnerships and less coordination is needed. South African retailers have already made good inroads in this regard. According to their respective integrated reports, last year Woolworths donated R556 million, Shoprite Checkers donated R108 million and Pick n Pay donated R96 million worth of surplus foods. There is potential for this to be scaled up.

While both corporate conscience and tax benefits are additional incentives to food donations, income can also be derived from sales to secondary markets.

Perhaps more than any other factor, ease drives the business case of diverting surplus foods. It’s easier and more cost effective for a retailer to have a charity collect the food than to have to take it to a landfill, particularly when there are intermediaries who pick up and remove all surplus food in its packaging from the food firm.

One major obstacle remains, however, to taking the donation of surplus food mainstream and that is legislation.

Many potential donors are reluctant to donate surplus food for fear of being held liable under the Consumer Protection Act should the food cause a consumer harm. Countries like Canada, France, Italy and the US have enacted legislation that encourages such donations by protecting the farmers who allow the collection of surplus food for redistribution; protecting good faith donors of surplus food still deemed fit for human consumption to NGOs; and protecting donors of food that may be deficient to some extent (for example, it has reached its best before date) to a responsible NGO that has the capacity to test the food prior to redistribution.

Werksmans Attorneys, as part of their pro bono work, submitted recommendations to dti for consideration in future food waste policy development. These recommendations and others are the subject of debate in a series of inter-departmental food round tables lead by dti.

There’s no doubt that the opportunity feeds into Government’s commitment to halve food waste by 2030 in line with SDG 12. The creation of policies incorporating appropriate consumer protection aspects could incentivize food donors and provide indemnity, enabling the redistribution of surplus food to really go mainstream in this hungry nation.

Surplus foods from farms to firms to forks is a paper produced by WWF South Africa and funded by the International Climate Initiative (IKI) of the Federal Ministry for the Environment of Germany.

  • Access the full paper here
  • Tatjana von Bormann is senior manager of the Policy and Futures Unit at WWF SA and a member of the Food Lab’s Advisory Board
  • This article originally appeared in Business Day