It is estimated that one-third of the food produced globally for human consumption is lost or wasted along the supply chain. This is a whopping 1.3 billion metric tons of food that doesn’t ever reach the consumer.
Most of the food loss occurs during transit from farm to fork, especially to urban markets. Food losses represents a waste of land, water, energy, financial, agrichemical and mechanical inputs. It not only impacts producers with reduced income and consumers with increased costs, but also challenges overall food security.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that saving one-fourth of the food currently lost or wasted globally would be enough to feed 870 million hungry people in the world.
For Africa, food losses are even higher— estimated at between 30% and 50%. It has a negative effect on food security, nutrition and economic stability. A number of studies have also observed that the underlying cause of post-harvest food waste and loss occurs at early stages of the food value chain. This can be associated with the lack of infrastructure for short-term storage, particularly at the farm level, as well as the lack of intermediate processing in the production catchments.
Mzansi is food secure, but not at household level
South Africa is said to be the most food secure country on the African continent. This is thanks to its robust, resilient and world-class commercial agricultural sector, at least from a commercial perspective. Currently, South Africa is ranked 44th out of 133 countries measured with regards to food affordability, availability, quality and safety, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2017 Global Food Security Index. However, it has been reported that an average of 12 million people go to bed hungry every night.
This, therefore, suggests that while South Africa might be regarded as food secure from a national perspective from a household perspective it is not. Food security is the basis for human beings’ way of life and, without it, life becomes unbearable and impossible.
The Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) estimates that about 30% of all food produced in South Africa is lost or wasted. This then begs a question: if South Africa boasts a world-class commercial agriculture and the right to food is enshrined in its Constitution, why is the country not able to address its hunger problems?
Inadequate farming methods, equipment cause food losses
Part of the answer to this question lays at the heart of post-harvest food losses. Estimates suggest that about 10 million tons of food go to waste in South Africa every year. This accounts for a third of the 31 million tons of food produced annually. The losses comprise 44% fruit and vegetables, 26% grains, 15% meat, and 13% roots, tubers and oilseeds. Most of this wastage and loss occurs early in the food supply chain, where 50% is lost during the post-harvest phase, 25% during processing and packaging, 20% during distribution and retail, and 5% at consumer level.
What can be done to reduce post-harvest losses? While it is important to come up with practical steps, identifying reasons or actions behind post-harvest losses is more necessary for proposing solutions to combat the problem.
Post-harvest losses could occur due to a number of reasons, including poor timing of harvest, poor methods and equipment choice for harvesting and initial handling, and the inability to harvest or decision not to harvest the crop. Timing, harvest method, and initial handling procedures can all affect the nutrient content of horticulture crops, leading to a loss of quality. Improper harvest methods and initial handling can result in cuts, bruising, and surface abrasion in roots, tubers, fruits and vegetables, leading to loss of water and nutrients. Moreover, losses can occur during transportation itself due to lack of temperature control, but also because of rough and multiple handling during loading and off-loading and lack of proper storage.
Lack of knowledge causes food waste
Given the above mentioned, it is clear that the general lack of knowledge on good agricultural practices, both at farmer and extension worker level, is the main contributor to post-harvest produce losses. Farmers, especially smallholders, do not use appropriate post-harvest crop handling techniques, appropriate storage facilities are too expensive or not available, appropriate transport modes are not available, road conditions are bad, and market information and access are insufficient, leading to unprecedented produce wastage.
Knowledge on the correct handling, storing, and transport of agricultural produce from farm level and throughout the supply chain is something that requires urgent attention. Perhaps more importantly, policy-makers need to show a little more interest in this regard. Linked to that is to ensure that available training and research in the agricultural sector is adequate and accessible to all producers, irrespective of size. This could go a long way to improving South Africa’s food quality and food security.