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South Africa wastes 10mn tons of food a year

It was a conversation with a farmer about his “imperfect” patty pans that struck Professor Suzan Oelofse about how food is wasted in South Africa.

Oelofse, a principal researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), was doing research for a study that she led, which shows how in South Africa an estimated 10.3-million tonnes a year of edible food does not reach people’s stomachs. 

“This farmer sells patty pans, which grow quickly once the fruit starts forming,” she says. “They harvest [from] Monday until lunchtime on Saturday and every day the patty pans are the same size. But by [the following] Monday morning, they’re sometimes nearly double the size because now a day and a half’s growth has happened.”

These patty pans are too large for retailers, Oelofse says. 

“They want 10 or 12 per punnet that they can package because this is what they perceive the consumer wants. The over-sized ones are either donated or sent to the informal market where they sit outside in the sun, so the shelf-life is shortened and they often go to waste.”

Oelofse says consumers have been “trained” by retailers to demand perfection and uniformity in shape, size and colour. 

“I always say that people tend to forget that fresh fruit and vegetables don’t come out of a factory with a mould for only round tomatoes or straight cucumbers.”

Although she has sympathy with retailers, because a “bunch of crooked cucumbers don’t fit easily into a crate and this makes it difficult to transport”, Oelofse believes South Africa can do a lot more to improve its supply chain.

According to the study, which was funded by the department of science and innovation, South Africa’s food waste is equivalent to 34% of local food production, but because the country is a net exporter of food, the losses and waste are equivalent to 45% of the available food supply. 

This also has economic, environmental and climate implications. 

Sixty-eight percent of this wastage unfolds in the early stages of production, with 19% occurring during post-harvest handling and storage and 49% during processing and packaging. Cereals contribute half of the overall losses and waste, followed by fruit and vegetables (19%), milk (14%) and meat (9%).

“A lot of the fresh produce … is diverted to animal feed, which is a win-win in a way, but if you consider the amount of people that still go hungry, then you cannot justify diverting food waste to [animal] feed rather than to consumers,” Oelofse says.

Globally, food production must increase by 70% by 2050 to meet the demand. Yet nearly one third of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted each year.

The environmental effects of food waste in the country are “staggering”, she says. “If you take into account all the food produced for consumption that is not consumed, it means that all the input material to produce that food is also wasted. That includes the water, the energy, and the diesel that is used on farms, and all the emissions associated with the entire supply chain.”

The decomposition of wasted food disposed of at landfills generates methane, a greenhouse gas more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, contributing to climate change.

“You also have the potential for water and air pollution and we are running out of landfill space, especially in the big metro areas.”

The study shows how food waste in the consumption stage has soared from 5% in 2013 to 18% in 2021. According to the CSIR and the department of forestry, fisheries and the environment’s food waste prevention and management guideline for South Africa, on average each person in Johannesburg disposes of 12kg of food a year into the municipal bin, and in Ekurhuleni it is 8kg a person a year.

“The bulk of our consumers sit in urban areas. We don’t produce our own food and buy it in the shop,” Oelofse says. “We are further removed from the farm. Then you also sit with the consumer buying food without using a shopping list or sticking to it and falling for the specials, like the buy four for R100.”

This sounds cheap “but people don’t realise that these special offers are a way for the retailers to avoid food waste at the retail level and they are therefore pushing it to the consumer who often ends up wasting it.”

Food is wasted because people are not aware of its implications, Oelofse says. “The moment you start thinking about food waste in your own household, you think differently about how you handle food and how much you buy, to try to avoid unnecessary wastage. Best of all, in the end you save yourself money.” 

Retailers Shoprite, Woolworths and Pick n Pay are aligned to the United Nations sustainable development goals, specifically with goal 12.3, which aims to halve global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along the food chain by 2030.

The Shoprite Group told the Mail & Guardian that it recognises the social, environmental, and economic effects of food loss and food waste in the regions where it operates.

“Apart from the social issues related to food losses and waste in a region where significant numbers of people go to sleep hungry, Shoprite acknowledges the wastage of embedded resources (water, energy, land, labour and capital), and the generation of greenhouse gases from landfilling of food waste.”

The group, it said, adopts a hierarchical approach in dealing with food losses and food waste, “reviewing our entire value chain, from research and design, and sourcing to consumption (that is, from farm-to-fork) to identify opportunities to reduce food losses and waste”.

This includes collaborating with other organisations “equally committed” to addressing the challenges and training and developing people across the organisation to become “champions” in the reduction of food losses and food waste.  

Shoprite is a core signatory of the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa’s food loss and waste voluntary agreement.  Pick n Pay and Woolworths, too, are core signatories of the agreement, which was launched in September 2019 to drive a sustainable commitment from local food manufacturers, distributors and retailers to prevent and reduce food waste.

Shoprite said as its data analytics develop, “we are able to identify food waste hotspots and intervene to reduce food waste”. 

In the past year, it had made great progress in reducing food waste by optimising the range of products offered in our delis. After analysing customer behaviour, it removed foods that showed no appeal to customers and subsequently created food waste. “We removed 60% to 70% of low-volume lines,” the company said, explaining how this cut food waste in its delis by 11%.  

Its bakeries, too, have shifted from large-batch production in its stores to buying high-quality frozen products that only require baking. “This enables us to bake smaller batches, which guarantees freshness, availability and less food waste.” 

To improve its forecasting and ordering capabilities in fresh fruit and vegetables, the group reviews its range seasonally, helping to reduce food waste year on year. 

Various business departments have worked together to implement an advanced forecasting model, which uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to automatically place accurate replenishment orders for individual stores based on a multitude of event parameters and predictive analytics. “The objective of the project is to forecast future demand and make sure that what stores order reflects real customer demand. This will ultimately reduce food waste.”

Employees are trained to refrigerate perishables, frozen produce, fruit and vegetables and convenience products within 10 minutes of delivery, while employees in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal have been trained on surplus food donations in the last year.

“Through this training intervention we have seen an increase in the amount of surplus food donated … Our delis use cooking oil in high volumes, which is sent to a centralised location where it is converted to bio-diesel.”  

Organic waste from its stores and distribution centres are increasingly managed through on-site composters and off-site biodigesters, which provide a “clean and simple solution to managing organic and wet waste”. 

The Shoprite group donates surplus food that is fit for consumption daily. “It creates an environmental benefit by reducing waste and a social benefit by alleviating hunger. Reusable surplus food collection boxes are used to transport food, helping to further reduce the environmental impact of food waste. 

It set a target of supporting 450 local beneficiary organisations with R100-million in surplus donations, including non-food donations. “We are proud to have met these targets by supporting 452 beneficiary organisations with donations to the value of R138m in the last year. These donations have enabled the Shoprite Group to provide more than 40-million meals in the last year,” from 29 million meals in 2020.

Donations reduce food waste, but wastage often occurs at the agricultural level in the group’s supply chain. Its fruit and vegetable procurement and distribution arm, Freshmark, has started to link beneficiary organisations directly with fresh produce suppliers. “In the last year, Freshmark facilitated direct donations to the value of R1.6 million to 11 beneficiary organisations.” 

Pick n Pay spokesperson Tamra Veley told the Mail & Guardian: “As a retailer with thousands of suppliers and millions of customers, we are mindful of our broad reach and the environmental impact we have across our value chain.” 

To reduce food waste, Veley said, Pick n Pay is reducing excess food in its stores and working with food suppliers to upscale collective efforts to reduce food waste. “In our previous financial year, Pick n Pay diverted more than 60% of all waste from landfills, reduced our food waste year on year by 20% and donated more than 800 tonnes of food to NGOs.”

It has a range of initiatives to prevent food waste, which includes more accurate replenishment, better cold chain management and several shelf-life extension projects. “A key deliverable is to ensure that food that has passed its sell-by date, but not its expiry date, is donated to registered beneficiary organisations.”

To support collective change, Pick n Pay, Veley said, takes part in local and international initiatives that align with the 12.3 goal. “Pick n Pay was the first South African retailer to sign up to the 10x20x30 Food Waste initiative launched in September 2019. The initiative brings together more than 10 of the most influential retailers globally and involves working closely with at least 20 of their largest suppliers towards a 50% reduction in food loss and waste by 2030.” 

Woolworths told the M&G that as part of its Good Business Journey, the company is committed to finding ways to reduce food waste and promote food security. “This includes, but is not limited to, our surplus food programme in stores and across our supply chain – from our farms and factories – working in partnership with our suppliers and local NGOs.

“We adopt the food waste utilisation hierarchy, which prioritises food utilisation and food waste avoidance or reduction in the first instance, and secondly the redistribution of surplus food for human consumption. Our goal is to ensure that no edible food should end up in a landfill.”

(John McCann/M&G)

Useful tips 

• Check your refrigerator and cupboard to identify what you already have ;

• Make a shopping list (in conjunction with meal planning);

• Stick to the shopping plan; 

• Avoid impulse buying;

• Buy from small local shops or grow your own food;

• Buy seasonal food; 

• Buy small amounts; and 

• Avoid buying in bulk. 

• Best-before labels indicate the date at which the product is at its optimum quality. According to the Foodstuff, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act, products may be sold and consumed beyond this date.

• The sell-by date is the last day on which the product should appear on a store shelf. It is safe to consume the product beyond this date if it looks and smells fine, but care must be still taken that it has not spoiled due to broken packaging or because the cold chain was interrupted. 

Source: Food waste and prevention management guideline for South Africa

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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