Opinionista Christine Olivier 3 September 2015

Food waste, South Africa’s shameful secret

Oxfam has calculated that 13-million South Africans go to bed hungry every night in South Africa. While this vast number of South Africans crave food they cannot access, the country somehow, without any pangs of shame or shouts of rebellion, manages to dump food valued at R60-billion!

Tucked away in the middle pages of the Financial Mail (20-26 August issue) is evidence of the extent of the shocking waste of our country’s resources. The story is not about platinum, or gold, or steel for that matter – it is about food! Tonnes and tonnes of food is simply wasted and not consumed!

The story is told by a person who should know what he is talking about: Pick n Pay CEO Richard Brasher. He revealed that a staggering third of all the food produced in South Africa is wasted, at a cost of R60-billion a year, equal to 2% of our gross domestic product!

Now, Oxfam has calculated that 13-million South Africans go to bed hungry every night in South Africa. That is just about twice the size of the population of the Eastern Cape, and more than 25% of the total South African population.

While this vast number of South Africans crave food they cannot access, the country somehow, without any pangs of shame or shouts of rebellion, manages to dump food valued at R60-billion!

Brasher says most of the waste occurs on farms, in storage and in the manufacturing and distribution process, and, he is honest enough to admit, in his Pick n Pay stores too, where he says they have declared a “war on waste”.

It is not only the hungry who suffer from this massive and costly waste.

The environment is affected by the colossal amount of rotting food that ends up dumped in landfill sites. Then there is the matter of the depreciation of the quality of our soils from which the food is grow.

It takes vast quantities of water to produce so much food – be it plants or animal food. There is the huge employment potential squandered in all this waste.

At a time when unemployment stands at 35%, the unemployed, especially the young, also suffer from the lack of the opportunities that could be created if there was a concerted drive to cut down on this waste by taking on extra staff.

With this much waste, is it any wonder that the wages on farms, and in food wholesale and retail sectors are so hopelessly low?

Pick n Pay has made some welcome gestures, deciding to create 20 new jobs for mainly previously unemployed young people every working day until 2020, which should bring the total to 5,000 every year. How many jobs would be created countrywide if everybody associated with the food value chain was waste conscious?

Most of all, how many human beings die young, from curable diseases because their immune systems were battered by hunger and starvation? How much violence can be attributed to hunger in South Africa? Only someone who has never gone hungry can dispute the violence-inducing effect of hunger.

How many babies suffer malnutrition and die in infancy because there was not enough food in their early years?

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa demands urgent action from the government to impose strict requirements for food companies across the entire food value chain to tackle waste and monitor progress to ensure wastage is cut to the absolute minimum.

Numsa wants every South African to know that in this day and age, with so much food science, and so much food being produced, there is absolutely no reason why any human being must suffer hunger.

But, the source of the problem is to be found in the moral values of our capitalist system. Capitalism is a system in which farmers do not grow food because they love to see happy, healthy and well fed people. They do it for money. They could easily be in the business of selling guns and bullets, if they could.

Capitalism is a system in which food wholesalers and retailers care more about their profits from the movement of food as a commodity rather than as a life-giving substance for human beings.

Restaurants and cafes are not there to serve excellent food to people, they are in it for money – they could easily be selling matches or bottles of snake oil.

The logic of the capitalist system in fact dictates that if more money is to be made from destroying food because supply is then constricted, so be it. Thus a bumper harvest is not necessarily good for every farmer as it reduces the price of food.

It is not the responsibility of any part of the food value chain to pay the cost of ensuring that food is protected from going to waste and that it reaches as many hungry people as possible.

In South Africa, the concentration and oligopoly in the food value chain further guarantees that price manipulation is the best tool to maximise profits, rather than serving the country’s food needs.

Food, like water and air and shelter, are all basic human needs and human rights, in this day and age, and a truly democratic government should and must guarantee these most basic, most essential of human rights. This and the prevention of waste, can only be achieved by a popular, democratic and worker-controlled state taking over significant and strategic parts of the food value chain. DM


In other news...

The South African economy is choking harder than the Proteas. Although to be choking you have to actually be eating and the Proteas seem to be on some sort of juice cleanse-like fast…*

Back to the economy: In the first quarter the GDP dive-bombed by a whopping 3.2%. The sense of futility can paralyse us into inaction and moaning. But it’s times like these that call for effort and action, no matter how small. Yes, South Africa is hurting. Yes the ravaged economy is evident everywhere you look. But you can make a difference, in your own personal way and by supporting independent media like Daily Maverick. We’ve pledged to continue the fight through producing incisive and impactful investigations and analysis, the same way we have done every day for the last decade.

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