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Five food waste facts that are hard to swallow

Do you ever feel guilty for throwing away your spoiled food, whether it’s because it reminds you of those who go to bed hungry, the costs associated with the waste or its impacts on the environment? These facts about South Africa’s food loss and waste might be even harder to swallow. But making changes in our food system and our personal consumption patterns could turn things around.

Fruits waste
© Unsplash
As a country with high levels of poverty and water scarcity, we need to change the way we produce and consume food.
1. One-third of all the food produced is wasted

You know that feeling when you open your fridge or cupboard and realise that your tomato, bread or milk has gone off and it’s too late to eat it? It happens to many of us, more often than we would like to admit! Each person in South Africa is estimated to waste about 210 kg of food each year. Most food loss or waste occurs even before it reaches retail or your fridge. About 49% is lost during processing and packaging, while 18% of waste occurs during the consumption stage. This results in one-third of all the food produced never even being consumed, which amounts to 10 million tonnes every year. That's equivalent to six sports stadiums where instead of a spectator's seat there are wheelie bins filled to the brim with edible food. Imagine that.

Rubbish dump
© Pexels
Approximately 10 million tonnes of food is never consumed in South Africa every year.
2. Fruits and vegetables are the most wasted

If you eat fruits and/or vegetables, you will have a better idea about how quickly these get spoiled. Think spinach, tomatoes, avocadoes and bananas. These usually last for about 10 days or fewer if not stored at the right temperature. At the farm level, produce is also wasted when supply exceeds demand, when produce gets damaged by weather, pests or diseases, poor harvesting, mechanical damage when harvesting or spillage, or even non-harvesting due to a price drop! This food does not make it to market. All this fresh produce accounts for 44% of wasted food that ends up in the rubbish dump every year in South Africa.

Some, vegetables like broccoli, spinach and kale tend to be chopped up, washed and packed for customer convenience. However, there is wastage during processing as well.  Have you ever wondered what happens to the nutritious stalks and stems that are cut off? These are thrown away, also contributing to the waste.

Food waste
© Unsplash
Potatoes are amongst the 44% of fruits and vegetables that are wasted in South Africa.
3. Food waste = water waste

Most South Africans are aware of drought and water shortages in the country. We are one of the driest nations in the world. But what does this have to do with food? Well, farming uses about 62% of the total freshwater used nationally. This would fill over 600 000 Olympic swimming pools. It's a huge loss when much of the food produced using this water then ends up in landfills, especially considering water scarcity.

© WWF South Africa
South Africa is one of the water-scarce countries in the world. We need to reduce food waste so we can save more water.
4. Food waste leads to energy waste

Some of us enjoy meals prepared in several ways and using different appliances – from cooking on stoves and in ovens to using food blenders and vegetable steamers. All these make use of energy, and when the food is not consumed, it becomes a double waste of electricity too. But the power usage doesn’t begin there. It starts from the growing and production phase and continues in the processing and distribution stage to packaging and retail, and then in our homes. The amount of energy wasted every year in South Africa for manufacturing food that is not eaten is estimated as enough to power the City of Johannesburg for 16 weeks!

© Pexels
The estimated cost of combined diesel and electricity wasted because of food waste is around R1 billion.
5. Food waste contributes to greenhouse gas emissions

“Greenhouse gasses”, “fossil fuels” and “climate change” have become common terms in our vocabulary. That’s because fossil fuels release greenhouse gases which are the biggest contributors to climate change - one of the greatest threats to humanity. Ninety percent of waste in South Africa is disposed of in landfills, where the waste component leads to the production of methane gas and carbon dioxide. Methane is a strong greenhouse gas and has 28-36 times more impact on the environment than carbon dioxide.

© Unsplash
Mitigating the causes is the only way we can combat climate change.
It's a mess but it’s fixable

Thinking about these hard-to-swallow truths can be overwhelming, as this level of loss and waste is unsustainable and contributes to food insecurity, environmental degradation and climate change. It is also a waste of valuable resources which could make it difficult for our food system to adapt to the impacts of a rapidly changing climate. 

A focused approach to reducing food waste and preventing it from ending up in rubbish dumps requires well-thought-out action plans and collaboration between government, businesses and civil society. This is what you and I can do at home to reduce food waste:

  • Buy local and/or seasonal: This contributes to shorter supply chains and reduced carbon emissions.

  • Plan your meals: Planning out your meals ensures that you buy only what you need to avoid purchasing items that might end up getting spoiled in the back of your fridge.

  • Eat from top to tail: Preparing and eating the entire vegetable (e.g., beetroot leaves and roots) means less waste, more nutrients and the most sustainable use of resources. 

  • Adopt a planet-based diet: This is food that is high in human health benefits and low in environmental impacts.

  • Put your food waste to use: Instead of throwing away your leftovers, compost them. This will give nutrients back to the soil and reduce your carbon footprint.

  • Eat less meat: Eat more fruits and vegetables and less meat. Meat production is associated with 18% of greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Avoid bulk and impulse buying and if you do bulk buy to save money, proper storage and freezing – be creative!

If all of us do our part, we can have a sustainable food future.

Dimpho Lephaila Photo
Dimpho Lephaila, Communications Officer

Dimpho believes in the power of science communication, because it is through knowledge sharing that people can learn and possibly change their behaviour.


Learn more and find out what you can do to eat for your health and the planet.