The challenge of food waste | WWF South Africa

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The challenge of food waste

Each year a third of available food in South Africa is not eaten and yet the problem of food waste remains strangely invisible.

Each year something in the region of 10 million tonnes, or a third of available food in South Africa, is not eaten and yet the problem remains strangely invisible. We don’t see great piles of food rotting in the sun, yet the annual volume of waste would fill Cape Town stadium six times over.

In recognition of the clear social, economic and environmental case for waste reduction, WWF, the CSIR and the Department of Science and Technology (DST) hosted a waste workshop at WWF’s Braamfontein office on 15 February 2017.
The workshop, which was also funded in part by the International Climate Initiative (IKI), was part of the DST “Industry meets Science” series in support of South Africa’s Waste Research, Development and Innovation Roadmap. The intention of the workshop was to focus at the top of the waste hierarchy; looking for opportunities for waste prevention in the entire value chain.
Waste is also largely invisible to most consumers and businesses; everyone thinks it is somebody else’s actions that are causing the problem. WWF interviewed industry leaders from the packaged food and retail sector and more than 50% of respondents thought it was the consumer who was responsible for causing the most food waste. WWF polled over 2000 consumers and 90% said they almost never waste.

And while CSIR research indicates that it’s probably not the consumer, the supermarket or the packaged goods companies (where the biggest problem sits), the fact is that we still don’t have sufficient data to have a clear strategy to reduce waste in the supply chain. The data that’s needed is expensive and time consuming, but it will unearth the primary causes, the extent of the problem, and effective mitigation strategies.

What we do know is that almost 12 million people in South Africa are considered food insecure, and losing a third of production impacts food availability and affordability. These levels of food wastage also have resource implications because of the high energy, water and land inputs associated with agricultural production. When food is wasted, so too is all the embedded energy and water required to produce it.  Water and energy costs, together with the cost of disposing of the waste, even accounting for the pervasive under-pricing of waste disposal, can add up to over R1bn.
Experts in industry and academia were invited to the workshop to build networks and obtain insights into this current research as well as draft a research agenda on food waste to guide the sector’s investment in R&D and innovation. It represented an important step towards understanding where efforts would be best placed in addressing South Africa’s waste challenge.
In the lead up to the workshop, it seemed as if the private sector was going to shy away from taking the public platform to talk about their waste reduction efforts, successes and barriers. Retailers and packaged food companies accepted the invitation to participate, but not to speak and it took some encouragement to fill the four industry presentation slots. However, on the day itself this initial hesitancy disappeared and participants from all sectors spoke with openness and insight.
The workshop also attracted international participants from UNEP’s Paris office and WRAP in the UK, which indicates just how high waste reduction sits on the international agenda and in the efforts towards achieving sustainable production and consumption within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Although the day itself engendered excellent dialogue and helped to create a shared understanding of the problem, there is still much to be done in unlocking the many opportunities and addressing the barriers to waste management and reduction.
A number of important proposals were put forward which will continue to have WWF and CSIR support. These included:
  • The South African government’s Department of Environmental Affairs could adopt SDG Target 12.3 (see below*) and commit South Africa to championing achievement of this goal
  • Allied to this is the opportunity presented by the role the Department of Trade and Industry plays as a global co-lead in the Sustainable Food Systems thematic under the UNEP Sustainable Consumption 10 Year Framework
  • The contributions which corporate targets and public commitments contributions  could make in reducing waste, improving awareness and in creating an enabling environment for further action
  • The need for greater collaboration and trust between academia and industry, through hosting students, research and data philanthropy which would unlock the wealth of insight and data in firms across the country
The workshop was a significant catalyst to creating the platform for such action. Further collaboration and dialogue is now needed to reach agreement on the features of the political and socio-economic conditions conducive to adopting these ideas. However, what  is clear is that every conversation, every bit of verified data or robust research and workshop makes the tricky problem of food waste a little more visible and, with that, a little more solvable.
*Sustainable Development Goal Target 12.3

Sustainable Development Goal  (SDG) 12 seeks to “ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.” The third target under this goal (Target 12.3) calls for cutting in half per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer level, and reducing food losses along production and supply chains (including post-harvest losses) by 2030.
Food waste is often laid at the door of the consumer, but the real picture is far more complex.

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