The future of food

2014-07-16 21:26

Food waste is a very serious issue: at its current state it is not the fault of many but its magnitude is one that affects us all.

I was reading a recent report by the CSIR Council for Science and Industrial Research on the amount of food that is wasted each year. I was amazed to find that a third of all food produced is thrown away while almost 900 million people worldwide go hungry everyday.

In South Africa it is particularly a huge problem because of a number of things. For one, agriculture is the thirstiest user of water, using close to 70% of our freshwater, while less than 10% of our land is truly fertile suitable for growing crops. A third of the world’s agricultural land area is used to produce food that goes to waste. So the problem of food waste is not only limited to food insecurity, but also wasted resources, inefficient use of land, wasted water and carbon emissions.

Food waste violates the rights of forthcoming generations to live in a healthy environment. Food waste in the environment does not have the same effects as plastics and other non-recyclables on the environment: it rots in landfills and produces methane gas that is 23 times more destructive than carbon dioxide.

This means that it has 23 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. Agriculture alone and our need for food already poses an even greater threat to the earth and global warming than the impact that cars, trucks, trains and airplanes has combined. If food waste was a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.

In South Africa the average amount of food that is wasted each year by individuals is 7 kg per year. This is less than 5% of the total amount of food that is wasted across the entire food supply chain, from agricultural production to our doorstep. What’s even more dismal is that billions of kilogrammes of fruits and vegetables are wasted each year – about half of the fresh produce that is produced is wasted. That is ridiculous. And it happens all before it reaches our fridges. And all of this is happening while between 12 and 14 million people in South Africa do not know where their next meal is going to come from.

A lot of what is wasted is happening in the processing, handling and distribution phases of the food supply chain. And the way to affect positive change is by intervention at these stages. At the household level this could mean buying food that is sourced locally or grown closer to home, buying food in season, buying free range, organic, fair trade, food that is produced sustainability and ethically, without artificial and chemical enhancements that preserve longevity, nutrition and taste.

I’ve been an environmental educator for four months now and with an economics background, my experience has been almost a conversion. I’ve become well-informed. I’ve learnt many new things, like environmental education teaching methods and how children learn, to learning to do a water and energy audit, to learning about organic gardening, and becoming more familiar with faith perspectives on the importance of caring for the environment.

But one amazing thing that I’ve learnt that has really had a profound and positive effect on my own behaviour since I’ve been here is the power of knowing and awareness, something that I didn’t really pay attention to before. I’ve found it incredibly amazing that not because someone told me why I should and that I must waste less, or that I should use less of one thing, but because I was simply shown how to do something and made more aware of the current situation that would eventually inform my own choices.

I therefore believe that it is important for us to have more conversations and that we just talk more about environmental issues, like food waste and make ourselves more consciously aware of other current environmental crises, because by becoming more aware of something that would eventually inform your own food choices is as of equal significance than simply living a zero carbon or “off-the-grid” lifestyle.

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