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Growing food insecurity crisis — Want not, waste not

Food wastage in our households and also in the food industry at-large has become a normal facet of our daily life in the modern world. Perhaps, our overfamiliarity with poverty, along with our deafness and blindness to it, makes us indifferent to the millions around us who go hungry every day, says Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya.

A line in last Sunday’s gospel reading together with the thoughts that led to my article on high-fashion brand Burberry's sinful wastefulness, got me thinking of just how wasteful a culture we have.

A verse in the Gospel story of the feeding of the multitudes goes: “Pick up the pieces left over so that nothing gets wasted”. (Mark 6:12)

So that nothing gets wasted – It can feel like a throwaway line in a story that we have become all too familiar with, about yet another miracle by a famous first-century miracle worker-cum-carpenter.

In instructing his disciples as to what they are to do after he has fed the multitudes out of the meagre five barley loaves and two fish, Jesus Christ could clearly also have been speaking to us today about our waste of food.

There are many good reasons, other than religious ones, as to why with regards to food we have to see to it that “nothing gets wasted”.

The most obvious is that far too many people go hungry in the world, even though we produce more than enough to feed everyone.

The UN agency tasked with the goal of achieving food security for all, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), paints a grim picture of hunger in the world.

The FAO 2018 Global Report on Food Crises estimates that 124 million people in 51 countries currently face a crisis of food insecurity or worse, are victims of severe malnutrition and starvation.

And things are only getting worse. Last year’s report identified that 108 million people suffered a food security crisis or worse across 48 countries.  A comparison of the 45 countries included in both editions of the report reveals an increase of 11 million people, an 11% rise overall, in the number of critically-food-insecure people across the world who require urgent humanitarian action.

According to the same report, conflict and insecurity continue to be the primary drivers of food insecurity in 18 countries, where almost 74 million people remain in need of urgent assistance.

Under these circumstances, those of us whose egos do not allow asking for a doggy bag at a restaurant to take home the leftovers after a meal and those of us who routinely buy more food than we need and throw it out because it has reached its consume-by date before we're able to consume it, are not any better than the Burberry's of this world.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the international NGO working to preserve the wilderness and to reduce human impact on the environment, published a report last year, in August 2017, that showcases the level of food waste globally. South Africa is included in this report.

In respect of South Africa, an executive summary of the WWF Food Loss and Waste: Facts and Futures report showed:

  • In South Africa, a third of all food is never consumed and ends up at rubbish dumps.
  • This waste is in stark contrast to the millions of South Africans that are going hungry.
  • Water and energy costs means food wastage comes at a very high price to the economy and environment.
  • Many actions needed to reduce food waste are already well formulated. The challenge is embedding this knowledge within government, businesses and households.
  • Government has made a global commitment to halve food waste by 2030.
  • Reducing food waste could be a fundamental strategy to improving food security.
  • In South Africa, 10 million tonnes of food go to waste every year. That’s a third the 31 million tonnes produced annually in South Africa.
  • Of this, fruits, vegetables and cereals account for 70% of the wastage and loss primarily throughout the food supply chain – from farm to fork.
  • The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research has valued this loss at R61.5 billion.
  • The energy wasted every year in South Africa for producing food that is not eaten is estimated as enough to power the City of Johannesburg for roughly 16 weeks.
  • The wasted embedded water would fill over 600 000 Olympic swimming pools – a massive waste for SA, the 30th driest country on the planet.
  • About 90% of waste in SA is disposed of to landfills, where the food-waste component leads to the production of methane gas and carbon dioxide.
  • Successfully cutting food loss and waste is a chance to turn around severe food insecurity felt by significant portions of the population.

Image: Flickr 

Some Facts from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Key facts on food loss and waste

  • Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — gets lost or wasted.
  • Food losses and waste amounts to roughly US$ 680 billion in industrialised countries and US$ 310 billion in developing countries.
  • Industrialised and developing countries dissipate roughly the same quantities of food — respectively 670 and 630 million tonnes.
  • Fruits and vegetables, plus roots and tubers have the highest wastage rates of any food.
  • Global quantitative food losses and waste per year are roughly 30% for cereals, 40-50% for root crops, fruits and vegetables, 20% for oil seeds, meat and dairy plus 35% for fish.
  • Every year, consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes).
  • The amount of food lost or wasted every year is equivalent to more than half of the world's annual cereals crop (2.3 billion tonnes in 2009/2010).
  • Per capita waste by consumers is between 95-115 kg a year in Europe and North America, while consumers in sub-Saharan Africa, south and south-eastern Asia, each throw away only 6-11 kg a year.

Per capita food losses and waste, at consumption and pre-consumptions stages,
in different regions

  • Total per capita food production for human consumption is about 900 kg a year in rich countries, almost twice the 460 kg a year produced in the poorest regions.
  • In developing countries 40% of losses occur at post-harvest and processing levels while in industrialised countries more than 40% of losses happen at retail and consumer levels.
  • At retail level, large quantities of food are wasted due to quality standards that over-emphasise appearance.
  • Food loss and waste also amount to a major squandering of resources, including water, land, energy, labour and capital and needlessly produce greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to global warming and climate change.
  • The food currently lost or wasted in Latin America could feed 300 million people.
  • The food currently wasted in Europe could feed 200 million people.
  • The food currently lost in Africa could feed 300 million people.
  • Even if just one-fourth of the food currently lost or wasted globally could be saved, it would be enough to feed 870 million hungry people in the world.
  • Food losses during harvest and in storage translate into lost income for small farmers and into higher prices for poor consumers.
  • In developing countries food waste and losses occur mainly at early stages of the food value chain and can be traced back to financial, managerial and technical constraints in harvesting techniques as well as storage and cooling facilities. Strengthening the supply chain through the direct support of farmers and investments in infrastructure, transportation, as well as in an expansion of the food and packaging industry could help to reduce the amount of food loss and waste.
  • In medium- and high-income countries food is wasted and lost mainly at later stages in the supply chain. Differing from the situation in developing countries, the behaviour of consumers plays a huge part in industrialized countries. The study identified a lack of coordination between actors in the supply chain as a contributing factor. Farmer-buyer agreements can be helpful to increase the level of coordination. Additionally, raising awareness among industries, retailers and consumers as well as finding beneficial use for food that is presently thrown away are useful measures to decrease the amount of losses and waste.


Video: Rome Reports

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.