Although enough food is produced globally to feed the entire world population, 821 million people remain undernourished or face recurring hunger. One contributing factor is that one-third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted or lost each year. Even though the food may get off the farm, it may not get to the fork due to food waste. The food that gets wasted could feed almost 2 billion people a day.
Food is not only wasted by consumers who throw away unfinished or expired food. It is also wasted at other stages of the food supply chain. This includes production, processing, packing and transporting. If food waste could be halved at each of these stages, there would be enough food to feed at least one billion people.
Why is so much food wasted
There are multiple reasons why food goes to waste. Awareness is one of the key reasons. At the household level, many people are unaware of how to store food to maximise its freshness. People are also often not able to differentiate between food that is spoiled vs food that edible.
Another challenge is infrastructure. Lack of storage facilitates, fridges, electricity often results in food spoiling faster. A lack of infrastructure presents a challenge resulting in food waste at the retail level in formal and informal fresh produce markets. If demand does not meet the oversupply of vegetables in fruit and vegetable markets with a short shelf life, food waste is the outcome of this market failure.
Both formal and informal producers may lack capacity and infrastructure, which results in the spoiling of fresh produce.
The lack of collaboration and a policy environment that supports reducing food waste has worsened the situation. For example, policies that encourage or provide incentives for restaurants to dispose of leftover food in a manner that meets the needs of the hungry are lacking.
Covid-19 and food waste
The Covid-19 pandemic worsened food waste as it interrupted many aspects of the food supply chain. Although farmers continued to produce food, lockdown restrictions meant that those working in logistics, food processing, packaging and the foodservice sector could not go to work.
For example, milk production continued because cows needed to be milked. With closures of schools, restaurants and coffee shops, the milk industry had an excess supply. Although this milk could be processed into other products like cheese and amasi, lockdown restrictions meant that processing facilities were at limited capacity and could not process the milk fast enough. As a result, a lot of milk went to waste. This is the case for any other fresh produce that was “locked down” on farms due to Covid-19 restrictions.
The pandemic has highlighted our limited understanding of the interconnectedness of our food system. A change in policies related to the movement had a knock-on effect on multiple aspects of food.
What is being done
The UN included halving food waste as one of the targets of Sustainable Development Goal 12 in 2015. This is the commitment that all UN member states have made to achieve responsible consumption and production.
At the University of Pretoria, the Food Systems Research Network for Africa (FSNet-Africa) is a project that aims to understand the African food systems better. At the heart of the programme are twenty early career research fellows who will be conducting transdisciplinary research related to several aspects of the African food system.
One of the fellow’s projects aims to use data technologies to better understand which points food goes to waste in packhouses. The fellow will offer recommendations on how to prolong the shelf-life of food. Another project will look at how to prevent food losses in tomatoes by increasing opportunities for processing—for example, producing canned tomatoes or tomato sauce. Such projects also open up economic opportunities for small-scale producers to begin new enterprises.
The importance of how small actions can have significant impacts on how we produce and consume food remains paramount on World Food Day. It is essential to educate ourselves on how we can support more sustainable consumption in our own communities.