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Processed food has bad press, but it’s essential for nutrition security

Food processing and the food industry are often framed in a bad light, but for this year’s World Food Day (16 October) I’d like to add some perspective to a few of the ideas about food production (which includes the whole value chain from agricultural production to the food on your plate), food processing, food and nutrition security, sustainability and food science and technology.

The world’s population is estimated to grow to about nine billion people by 2050, with an additional one billion people in Africa by then. A further increase to 11 billion people globally by 2100 is forecast. Urbanisation is set to increase to 78% by 2050 and water will be a more scarce commodity. We are faced with the challenge of feeding more people in urban areas affordably, to reduce hunger and improve food and nutrition security, but doing so in a sustainable fashion.

The United Nations says: “Food and nutrition security exists when all people at all times have physical, social and economic access to food, which is consumed in sufficient quantity and quality to meet their dietary needs and food preferences, and is supported by an environment of adequate sanitation, health services and care, allowing for a healthy and active life.”

Many people see food insecurity merely as a matter of producing more food. It is not that simple; it requires the right types of food to be produced (addressing nutritional needs), in the right amounts (addressing sufficiency), minimising food waste, extending shelf-life and ensuring the food is safe.

It’s estimated that a third or more of all food produced for human consumption (more than 1.3-billion tonnes) gets lost or wasted annually in developing and developed countries. These losses are of relevance when reducing hunger, generating incomes and improving food security. Food losses do not only affect food and nutrition security, especially for poor people, but also food quality, safety, economic development and the physical environment.

Causes of food losses can vary from one country to another, specific conditions, types of crops, infrastructure, marketing strategies, distribution and consumers’ food use practices (sell-by dates). Food losses and waste are much higher in industrialised and developed countries. Global food supply chain losses are probably substantial. So, before we focus on increasing food production, there is a need to identify how much food is lost and wasted, where and when it is wasted and how we can prevent it.

Of course, it would be wonderful if we could all eat only farm fresh, hand-grown produce, free-range poultry and meat and non-processed foods. With urbanisation most people don’t have the time and space to grow and rear all their own produce and livestock.

“Organically” grown, pasture-fed, free-range, handmade food is nutritious, but these come at a price, which few people can afford. In our society and in many others around the world, large numbers of the population have very little expendable income, a high proportion of which is spent on food. They have to feed a family a nutritious meal every day at an affordable price. They must choose between spending all their money for food on one or two meals a week or try to stretch it and provide meals every day.

This is where food processing (extending the shelf-life of products) comes to the fore – the purpose of it is to preserve food by extending its shelf-life, the nutritional content and all the sensory qualities, while also ensuring that it is safe to consume. Advantages of this are a wider availability of foods throughout the year, more geographically spread, convenience, choice, safety and traceability. Foods such as yoghurt, cheese, milk, pilchards, canned and frozen vegetables, bread, olive oil, fruit juice, oat porridge, preserves, butter and even a 100% pasture-fed beef patty are all considered “processed”. Some might be of better quality than others, but we can’t say food processing is bad.

Food processing has also allowed us to produce a variety of foods with questionable nutritional quality (or lack thereof), and additives and preservatives. It is these types of products we should have removed from the market. As in any other industry there are unscrupulous players where cost and profit, rather than nutrition, dictate the final formulation. There is no way we will feed the growing world population without some processing and preservation – we just have to ensure it is done with food and nutrition security in mind.

Solving this problem is not only the responsibility of the food industry, food producers and processors. There are many spheres that need to play a part — from primary school educators, scientists, entrepreneurs and multinational food producers to society in general and the government to ensure there is economic growth, so that every citizen can afford to eat healthy food.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Gunnar Sigge
Prof Gunnar Sigge is the chair of the department of food science in the faculty of AgriSciences at Stellenbosch University.

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