/ 18 October 2022

Why South African farmers don’t measure lost food

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The bulk of the loss occurs during the production stage and the rest post-harvest during handling and storage. Photo by Gideon Mendel/Corbis via Getty Images)

About 45% of South Africa’s total available food supply that enters the food value chain is lost or wasted, with much of it occurring during initial agricultural production on farms.

But fewer than 40% of farmers measure how much food is wasted, a new study has found. The research was conducted by The Behaviour Change Agency, for the World Wildlife Fund South Africa (WWF-SA), the Nedbank Green Trust and Food Forward.  

It explored the awareness, attitudes and behaviours of farmers about food waste, including the value they place on reducing food waste and what their food waste management practices are.

Although food waste unfolds across all stages of the food supply chain, a Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) study in May 2021 found that 34.3% of the total edible food waste — 10.3 million tonnes a year — unfolds at the primary production stage. Of this figure, South Africa loses 2.7 million tonnes during agricultural production and 2.4 million tonnes during post-harvest handling and storage. 

The Behaviour Change Agency study said that the wastage of 10 million tonnes of edible food each year in South Africa comes at a cost of about R10 billion per year – enough to feed 22 200 children every day for a year. 

“In a country where two out of 10 children under the age of five are stunted and malnourished, wasting nearly half (45%) of the total available food supply is nothing short of a tragedy.”

Environmental factors

For its study, fruit and vegetable farmers from across South Africa were interviewed and they cited environmental factors as one of the biggest causes of food waste and loss. 

Unfavourable weather conditions and destructive pests and diseases can damage entire crops at a time, “leading to catastrophic wastage”, according to the study.

Behavioural factors play a role too. “Water management, planting practices, harvest planning and crop monitoring are all susceptible to poor decision making, however, an often-overlooked contributing factor to food waste on farms is that of chemical mismanagement, where pesticides are incorrectly used, potentially ruining entire crops.


The pandemic brought “new impetus” to food losses through its impact on market-related factors. More specifically, oversupply due to closed borders, stricter import policies, bottlenecks at harbours and exorbitant increases in input costs, make it almost unviable for farmers to harvest, pack and transport their crops for market.

The study notes how during the peak of the lockdown in South Africa, a pomegranate farmer from the Western Cape had just harvested an entire crop of A-grade export fruit, destined for the high-paying market of Europe. But with both national as well as international borders closed, he had to make another plan with his harvest, which was deteriorating in quality by the hour.

“He made numerous calls to attempt redistribution and selling on the local market, but when these attempts failed, he resorted to donating the fruit. This was, however, not without its challenges. It’s not exactly straightforward to donate R1 million worth of fruit. A receiver needs to be identified that can ensure the donation ends up on the plates of those in need, and the logistic arrangements around transporting such a large quantity is a major task on its own.”

Neither of these conditions could be met, even after the farmer contacted numerous municipalities and charity organisations. “So, what did he do? He drove container-carriers full of fruit into his local community and invited everyone to take whatever they needed.”

Import restrictions

The study notes how social media users recently reacted with severe distaste to a video, showing tonnes of citrus being dumped in the Eastern Cape. “This mass-dumping was a result of strict and somewhat irrational import restrictions on South African citrus to Europe and “a subsequently saturated local market. Although the import restrictions have been lifted in the meantime, the citrus industry will feel the effects for the foreseeable future.

“The (export) prices went up so much that we are lucky if we break even. We held crates back in the cold rooms, hoping for the price to climb again, but by the time the fruit had to move, the price was even lower, so dumping it was cheaper than selling it,” a citrus farmer from Limpopo said.

Loadshedding, riots

Farmers face unique problems that contribute to food waste and loss, such as disruption in cold chains because of load-shedding and damage to trucks and re-routing delays due to riots and unrest, the study found.

Despite some of the causes of food waste on farms being beyond human control, farmers are still trying their best to employ preventative strategies to address food waste where they can. However, these often come at a cost, it said.

“Side-stepping weather conditions with the use of greenhouses and protective netting might sound like an easy solution, but at an average cost similar to that of the land, which is being farmed on, it remains out of reach for most farmers, especially considering the slim profit margins in farming.

Green energy

Switching to green energy to prevent dependence on Eskom is also an option for mitigating losses, but again, the initial costs of setting up a solar power system is not something most farmers can afford.

Repurposing produce can save it before it wastes, but practices like juicing, pulping, freezing or drying of fruit and vegetables comes at a cost too. Either the farmer has to invest in a repurposing facility on the farm or produce has to be transported and subcontracted to a processing factory.

Adhering to good farming practices and ensuring the health of the crop is the best way to stop losses and waste from happening.

Findings from the interviews revealed that only four in 10 farmers are able to estimate food waste on their farms. “This means that many farmers might be unaware of the extent of the problem on their farms. In addition, while some of the behavioural solutions may be simple, they are certainly not easy to achieve on a national scale due to the heterogeneity of the farming industry.”

But the research found that 100% of respondents were eager to address food waste on their farms. “This motivation stemmed from both a financial and a moral drive towards increasing food security. This means that, although farmers face numerous barriers when trying to implement food waste management strategies, they are up for the challenge.”

The next step for researchers is to devise behavioural change interventions that can be tested at farm level.

One third of all food produced lost or wasted

Global food production must increase by 70% by 2050 to meet the demand for food. Yet nearly one third of all food produced for human consumption around the world is lost or wasted each year.  In South Africa, waste at the household level has risen from 5% to 

18%, according to the CSIR.

It said food waste has a triple negative effect, hurting the economy, because “ all water, electricity, seeds, fertiliser and other inputs used to produce the food is wasted if the food goes to waste”. 

It contributes to food insecurity by increasing the cost of food, because the cost of the wastage gets factored into the prices of food, making food unaffordable for poor people. It worsens climate change by increasing greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

*This story has been updated to include the study’s results