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Valuing South Africa's food waste

In countries like South Africa where food takes up as much as one-fifth of household spending, reducing waste from ‘farm to table’ is much more than a moral obligation - it is an economical way to maximize resources.

Global estimates put food waste along the entire supply chain at 50% of all our production. Most of this waste happens in developed countries where food waste per capita is as high as 600lbs every year compared with estimates of 300lbs per capita in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). The origin of food waste also differs; households in the European Union waste approximatelygenerate 42% of food, in contrast to Sub-Saharan African households where waste accounts for only 3.5%.

Regardless of volume, food waste is a moral problem that also wastes resources during disposal, and creates environmental pollution. However, the absence of national and regional level data in many developing countries complicates the design, testing and implementation of appropriate programs that could minimize waste. A team of researchers at the national Council for Scientific and Industrial Research has taken on the data challenge by developing and testing methodologies for quantifying the cost of food waste in South Africa. Their most recent efforts, published in Waste Management, involve cost estimates of edible food wasted from production to households.

The authors focus on seven commodity groups and divide the process from farm to table into five-steps. Using regional averages of food wasted from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization at each step for each commodity group, the team estimated the quantity and weighted average cost of food wasted in South Africa. Estimates for each commodity group included at least two representative commodities –maize and wheat for cereals. Prices came from local commodity derivative markets and associations including Abbatoir associations, citrus growers, and Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry.

The report estimates food waste at 10.2 million tons, valued at $7.7billion every year - 2.1% of South Africa’s GDP. Further analysis showed that expensive commodity groups and phases of the value chain contributed to greater economic losses. The volume of seafood and meat wasted was less than 10% of total, but it took up 41% of the cost while distribution, processing,and packaging processes produced 25% of volume and 42% of the cost. Although fruits and vegetables are cheap, the large quantities wasted especially during processing, packaging and distribution,translate to 36% of the total cost.

Contrary to popular schools of thought, this report suggests a majority of food waste in developing countries may be due to inefficient processes of retailers and wholesalers between farm and table. For policy makers, the findings highlight low hanging fruit for tackling the problem including policies and infrastructure that strategically improve the economies and efficiency of processing, packaging and distributing food. Entrepreneurs could also explore processing and preservation points along the value chain with enormous potential as lucrative industries. For instance, by extending the lifecycle of high value per unit commodities like meat and seafood as inputs for animal feed production, and diverting high volumes of fruits and vegetable from the landfill to feedstock for compost production.

As other countries beginning tackling similar questions, the research team’s methods demonstrate good use of data that is now available for many developing countries and a practical way of building on institutional knowledge of local associations. Although it excludes inedible food waste and does not account for disposal costs at different steps in the value chain, this method of food waste tracking and analysis could easily be adapted in other locations where regional level data about food waste along value chains is scarce or non-existent. 

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Original Paper:
Nahman, A., de Lange, W. Costs of food waste along the value chain: Evidence from South Africa. Waste Management (2013),
Additional Reading:
Gustavsson, J., Cederberg, C., Sonesson, U., van Otterdijk, R., Meybeck, A., 2011. Global Food Losses and Food Waste: Extent, Causes and Prevention. Study Conducted for the International Congress SAVE  FOOD! at Interpack 2011, Düsseldorf, Germany. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome.


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