Circularity in Food Systems as a Solution of Food Loss and Insecurity
Introducing circularity into African food value chains may be key to eliminating waste and alleviating food insecurity.
According to the World Resources Institute, an estimated economic value of about US$1 trillion worth of food is lost annually. This is the equivalent of one-third of all food produced globally every year. When taken into account that nearly 100 million people in Africa are facing acute food insecurity, the fact that an estimated 37% of all food produced in Sub-Saharan Africa every year is lost becomes egregious.
First, it is important to understand that food loss and food waste are different problems. Food loss tends to occur during the production stage, in storage, in the supply chain. Think about the flooded farm just before harvests, or the grain that goes bad in a silo, or fish that goes rotten during long-haul transportation because the refrigerators developed issues. Food waste is basically the loss of edible food. Making a too-large meal, and having to dispose of half of it, or negligence a la poor meal storage or planning.
A major thing to note in both food loss and waste is that each tends to occur more in different regions. Food waste tends to occur more in point of consumption of high-income regions, where families and restaurants or hotels may possess more food that necessary, leading to waste. Conversely, food loss tends to be more synonymous with low-income regions, especially in areas of handling, storage, and transportation. On-farm production losses tend to be found everywhere, often during or just after harvests. The food supply chain also contributes to food waste in the sense that smallholder farmers may either not find fair-value for their crops, or may not have the facilities to store crops before sales.
The issue of food loss and waste is similar to that found in manufacturing. Would it be necessary to produce as much if what was already produced was used more efficiently? This then brings the idea of circularity or a “circular economy” into food systems. The food value chain has not yet caught up with the manufacturing industry in the area of recycling: excess food is often just thrown away. However, the idea of a circular economy might help.
The circular economy, or “circularity” as this writer would rather call it, aims to reduce material use, keeping products in circulation for as long as possible. It aims to tackle the predominant linear pattern: “take-make-dispose", by adopting cyclical methods of recapturing waste to use in further production. This is a system that goes further than just plastics or metal; it can also be applied to food systems, aimed at producing a zero-waste value chain.
One way to go about this might be in changing the way we grow food. Most industrial agriculture uses nitrogen- and phosphorous-based fertilizers. While these have become an integral part of the food value chain, excessive usage pollutes the air, soil, and water around us. Circularity may focus on nutrient recycling: making use of plant and animal biomass as fertilizers. Food waste can be composted into nutrients which enrich the soil, a system already in use in most Western countries. It is not uncommon to see recycle bins separated into “food waste” and “plastic” or “paper”. This way, all food waste is composted for nutrient recycling.
Another method of applying the circular economy to food could be in food by-products. Imagine the skins and hides taken off livestock, or the shells of coconuts or palm seeds. These are more likely than not to end up in a landfill, where they often up becoming sources of climate-damaging methane emissions. Instead of waste, these can instead by processed into useful goods and accessories such as biofuels, pharmaceuticals, and clothing.
The biggest move that can be made to solve food loss especially in regions like sub-Saharan Africa is improving transport and storage facilities. The absence of, or lack of access to, proper transport and storage facilities is a major defect in food value chains across Africa. It may be poor energy supply to power cold storage, insecurity and conflict, poor infrastructure for long-haulage such as roads and railways, or even the affordability of all mentioned.
This is where it becomes necessary to think about innovations driven at small- and medium-scale farmers, who often encounter the most food loss. These farmers may not be able to afford facilities like standard silos or industrial cold rooms, or energy access. Government-led programs such as investments in infrastructure provision may provide these amenities. This could be done in a decentralized manner. Consider the energy concept of mini-grids: decentralized energy grids powering small communities. Governments could provide small agricultural communities with facilities like cold trucks, cooling rooms, and storage silos.
Circularity in food systems will not be easy to set in place across Africa, especially when issues with policy frameworks and access to finance will have to be tackled. However, embracing the concept will go a long way in preventing food loss, and it can go even further. Circularity can also, along with saving economic losses, present economic opportunity, creating new business models and an entire industry which turns waste into wealth.
- Published: 20th February, 2023