Food Politics: The Scarcity vs Abundance Conundrum

One third of all food produced in South Africa goes to waste during the course of production, processing, distribution and consumption, due mostly to poor storage facilities, market inefficiencies, and bottlenecks in the supply chain, costing an estimated R61 billion annually. While the food system continues to remain volatile, the negative impact on food security is huge from a cost perspective, especially when considering that South Africa is a net importer of food. Food waste also has a negative environmental impact in the form of wasted resources / input costs such as water and electricity to produce the food, and the cost of emissions. Most of the food waste takes place on the pre-consumer side – before the food reaches the consumer, although household food waste is also a growing concern.

Yet, in the midst of all this abundance of waste, we have a significant proportion of our population living in conditions of food scarcity / insecurity. For about 14 million people securing food is a daily struggle, one that leads to compromised nutrition, skipping meals, eating smaller portions and also very common – going without food for days.

CSIR research estimates that between 9 and 10 million tonnes of food is wasted each year. These estimates exclude non-food products such as toiletries, detergents, and personal hygiene items, to name a few. Additionally, food waste disposal to landfill poses a pollution threat to groundwater resources.

Another dimension and yet crucial component to this escalating problem, is that although we use the term waste, we should refer to, at least a large portion of this ‘waste’ as surplus, since there is a case that most of the food is quality edible food fit for human consumption, and most toiletries, detergents, and personal hygiene items are perfectly usable, even well after their recommended “Best Before” or “Use By” dates. If this level of waste continues, the effects are catastrophic in proportion, just thinking about the country’s emissions footprint, the costs to consumers, and the lack of access to food for the poor.

Surely, where abundance exists in the food system that are unavoidable, creative alternatives should be sought to direct quality edible food to meet the challenge of feeding growing populations and addressing food scarcity.

One such creative alternative is Foodbanking. For more than 15 years, FoodForward SA (formally known as FoodBank SA), has been partnering with manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers, to do just that – recover and reuse quality edible surplus food and usable non-food products for redistribution to registered and vetted NPOs involved in addressing food insecurity. At least 85% of FoodForward SA’s Beneficiary Organisations are involved in skills development activities, education initiatives, care for abused women, youth development, health promotion, HIV/AIDS care and care for orphans and vulnerable children, in addition to their feeding programmes. In this context, Foodbanking is actually a catalyst for development, since these organisations can now use their grocery bill funds to fund development activities.

In this way, Foodbanking creates a shift towards a more circular economy, one that results in greater productivity since children are fed and have the energy to learn and adults have the strength to go out and seek employment, as opposed to the current linear economy, which is a ‘take, make, dispose’ model of production. The opportunity cost of dumping is just too great not to consider this alternative.

Other benefits of the Foodbanking model include:

  1. Foodbanking or food rescue is restorative and regenerative by design
  2. Since the food is donated, the foodbanking model is very economical and scalable
  3. Once critical mass is achieved, distributing donated food to feed the hungry is much more cost effective than buying food to accomplish the same goal
  4. Since most of the food and non-food groceries we receive are still well within date, it is well used, as opposed to being dumped
  5. Poor people have greater access to food, and much of this food will be healthy and nutritious
  6. The provision of food and non-food groceries to verified non-profit organisations such as educational institutions, orphanages, care facilities and homeless shelters, and rehab centres allows them to focus on the important work that they do
  7. The impact on the environment is less severe as the carbon footprint is reduced

While not all the industry representatives are keen to support redistribution over dumping, thankfully, many wholesalers, retailers and manufacturers are open to the idea that donating food instead of dumping it, is not only good for business, it’s also good business practice – contributing to the social good and preserving the environment. Here we would like to acknowledge and thank caring partners like Pick n Pay, Shoprite Checkers, RCL Foods, Nestle, Fruit and Veg City, Mass Discounters, Cambridge Foods, Woolworths, Pioneer Foods, Kellogg’s, Albany, Clover and others for investing in people by donating surplus food and non-food groceries. The impact of this partnership, while not immediately tangible, is making a real difference to those who really need it.

While investment into new technologies and efficiencies in the food system will reduce food waste / surplus over time, into the future food will continue to be affected by inefficiencies in the food system, resulting in gross surpluses, which can be harnessed and redistributed to address the current food scarcity in South Africa. Therefore, an integral part of the transformation in the food system should include a conversation around developing a circular economy within this paradigm, of which the Foodbanking model should be seriously considered as a viable alternative.

Andy Du Plessis

MD: FoodForward SA