Cape Town - As much as 170 million tons of food produced globally ends up as waste, according to the WWF (World Wildlife Fund).
In South Africa, this figure stands at 10 million tons which is about a third of the 31 million tons of food produced annually in the country, and the losses are estimated to cost the economy R61.5 billion.
Head of Food Sciences at Stellenbosch University, Professor Gunnar Siggi, said the food waste is directly linked to the consumer’s need for fresh produce and the fact that fresh produce, especially, is not available in “loose format” as is the trend in more developed countries around the world.
Siggi said he suspects the losses may even be higher.
“We are slowly beginning to see in some of our supermarkets that you can buy just the few tomatoes and bananas that you need. We know that most fresh produce ends up rotten in our fridges and we throw those out. The other problem is that the big retailers also buy more than what they sell,” said Siggi.
But he’s not only laying the blame at the doors of big retailers but also consumer attitudes and the need to eat the freshest produce available.
“People can save so much money if they only buy what they need. I know we often look at the ‘sell by’ or ‘use by’ dates and often throw food out when we think that food has expired. There is nothing wrong with eating a slightly brown banana,” he said.
Siggi said it’s not only money that is lost but also the resources that went into producing food. He is however encouraged by big retailers looking into the challenge of reducing food waste.
“This is a very difficult balancing act. It’s a matter of stock control versus what consumers want. Also, big shops are not able to accurately predict how many feet will come through their doors so the tendency is to always buy more, rather than less,” said Siggi.
On the issue of fresh versus processed foods, Siggi said processed food always gets the shorter end of the stick but this could be key in reducing food waste.
“Some foods need to be processed so they can last longer. Even the free-range meat goes through a preserving process. Some breads are baked at higher temperatures. This needs to happen to kill the microbes that could make us sick but every effort is put into preserving the taste and nutritional values,” he said.
Siggi said because of the economic situation in SA, poor people are less concerned about what goes into food and more about having food on the table.
“In a country like ours it’s almost impossible to say that we must only eat fresh foods. Soon we will see 80% of the world’s population living in urban areas and feeding everyone is going to be a huge challenge. The poor cannot even afford a normal basket of food. The economy is a fail and the reality is that more people simply cannot afford fresh food,” he said.
Retail giant Pick n Pay asked 20 of its biggest suppliers to join the company in its global food waste reduction initiative. The project is backed by 10 of the world’s largest food retailers and manufacturers, and will focus on in-store and supply chain food loss and waste.
“As the demand for food continues to increase around the world, agricultural-based industries are under increasing pressure to maximise yields. At the same time, growers struggle to adapt to climate change, adopt sustainable and innovative growing practices and mitigate the environmental impact,” said the company.
Leader in the potato industry, McCain Foods, is one of the companies participating in this initiative. McCain Global Sustainability manager, Stephanie Tack, said last year, McCain introduced an aspirational purpose to make planet-friendly food.
“While this will take time and effort to achieve, the first steps have begun by bringing local sustainability plans together under one global sustainability strategy. The strategy is aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and identified seven goals where the company can contribute its resources and relationships with greatest effect,” she said.
Tack added that South Africans can play a huge role in fighting food waste as the solution often lies with the end consumer.
“People can reduce their food waste by considering practical alternatives like buying frozen foods instead of fresh food, meal prepping, better storage options and only buying what you need. Frozen foods such as fruits and vegetables allow you to choose products that may be out of season and ensures the longevity of the product as it can be used as and when needed because the shelf life is much longer,” she said.
Tack stressed that contrary to popular belief, freezing food tends to be more nutritionally reliable than fresh foods as freezing prevents sensitive vitamins and nutrients from being lost during transportation.
The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR) principal researcher, Dr Suzan Oelofse, said the magnitude of food waste as per the WWF report is an estimate based on assumptions for sub-Saharan Africa and they hope to publish their own data in the first half of next year.
“A number of food waste reduction initiatives are under way. The CSIR served on the advisory board and together with DEFF also developed a food waste minimisation guideline, which will hopefully be launched before the end of 2020,” she said.