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Home Food for Thought Re-discovering the food in the food waste

Re-discovering the food in the food waste

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Food waste has finally been earmarked as important and we are starting to take food waste seriously. However, Dr Naudé Malan argues that food waste is prevalent at all places in the food chain, and there are many interesting opportunities in dealing with food waste in the food system. Is all food “waste” really wasted? Malan, a lecturer and founder of iZindaba Zokudla, a Soweto-based farmers’ lab, weighs in on the matter.

Can food waste be “saved”? Should we aim to eliminate all waste, or should we rather see if we can transform the waste into something else? We have to remember that at the moment of “waste,” food is not “trash” yet, and here lies opportunities to repurpose the waste into something else.

Furthermore, food and food production is inherently wasteful, but by designating something as “waste” we increase costs of dealing with it – as it is “worthless” – and allocate the most menial jobs to its “disposal”. This is how we lose value in the food system. The best strategy to follow is to convert food waste into something else.

Food on the plant is certainly edible, but is indistinguishable from mere biomass. Plants unpalatable for humans can certainly be used as animal feed. A large part of the “cause” of food waste is simply the fact that there are no animals present at the moment of “waste”. The same can be said of animal waste, be it manure or flesh.

What about household food waste?

Either of these will not be seen as “waste” if there is another opportunity for something else to consume the “waste”. The amount, kind and nature of the “waste” we see is created by our own perceptions of the process. Had there been something to eat the waste, it would be seen as “feed”. Household food waste can be fed to worms, and this is immediately more valuable and useful, and could become an important agricultural resource.

The overall quantity and kind of waste is conditioned by its insertion into a particular value chain. We need to think about waste differently. Because we are not engaged in large-scale regenerative farming systems we are in fact creating waste for ourselves by how we “code” these things in our minds and in the material processes we have created. We simply do not see large-scale food waste as relevant inputs into the farming system.

And biomass?

What then do you do with biomass? The default “landfill” solution is in fact a destruction of value. We see in the press every day how farmers are dumping and filling unsold produce on their farms whilst this is perfectly good biomass that can be composted or fed to another animal. It can also be used to generate electricity. We know this is possible, but we have divided farming so much that this integration is not possible for many individual farmers.

Sewerage in a sense is food waste. Sewerage holds untold nutrients in itself, but we discard the bulk of all our sewerage, either into the sea or by neglecting our sewerage plants. Because we are not using regenerative farming systems, we are losing value in production by discarding our sewerage. This loss of value is crucial in establishing large scale regenerative systems for our planet and our food. The losses incurred in discarding sewerage overshadows losses on the farm and in production.

Regenerative Agriculture is about farm management that works with nature rather than against nature, forming carbon loops rather than a series of carbon emissions that take carbon from the soil into the sky. This rebuilds the soil, stimulating the microbiology and fixing the water cycle. Photo: Supplied
Regenerative Agriculture is about farm management that works with nature rather than against nature, forming carbon loops rather than a series of carbon emissions that take carbon from the soil into the sky. This rebuilds the soil, stimulating the microbiology and fixing the water cycle. Photo: Supplied

A regenerative system – that does not have to eschew synthetic inputs but can complement them, will make do with what is “lost” on the farm. Most farmers recycle their biomass on the farm, and this is not properly appreciated.

All food that is “wasted” on the farm can easily be repurposed for feed, energy or composted for the soil. We often simply discard it, and this contributes to the methane problem in the atmosphere.

Regenerative systems at food processing level can just as easily repurpose food waste for energy, feed, biochar or compost. These simple solutions are not spectacular and do not capture an urban consumers’ imagination as an alarmist headline screaming “30% of food is wasted” does. Food waste is not lost, but can be regenerated at the point where it is “wasted”. This is the solution to the food waste “crisis”.

“We have to start utilising all wastes and build regenerative systems and knowledge’s for the use of all wastes in society.”

Waste is everywhere. We need to see waste as a flow and not as a stock. There is a regenerative flow of nutrients in this system and it is incorrect to think of waste as “30%” of all food. The “30%” scenario creates the impression that the food is lost forever and that life is more and more precarious.

This scaremongering leads to inappropriate reactions by urban consumers. We do not need high precision agriculture and retail systems that creates no waste. This is impossible. We rather need a system of food production where all unavoidable wastes are regenerated, and this is how we should build value in the system.

We need to value waste. This can only happen once we adopt large-scale regenerative systems for food production. We have to value waste, and conceptualise it as a flow and an “input” into food production.

We will then see an abundance of waste, and this is the cue entrepreneurs need to build enterprises that transform waste into value. We simply have to start utilising all wastes and build regenerative systems and knowledge’s for the use of all wastes in society. In this way we can plan and budget for technologies that process the waste, contributing to the solvency and ecological integrity of a whole sector.

‘New nutrient loop in food system’

Food waste processors could build a market for biochar and in this way create a new nutrient loop in the food system that will lower costs and build value.

The reason we do not see large-scale regenerative systems emerging in farming is because there is a dearth of nutrition available to establish such an organic and regenerative systems. We simply have to start thinking of how we can recycle our sewerage, food wastes and household bio-waste.

There are many technologies available to do this. However, because this nutrition is not available, we will not see organic or regenerative farming establish itself in a significant way. It simply will not compete with synthetic inputs.

We need to develop large-scale sewerage processing systems if we want to see organic farming and regenerative systems established. The key lies in what we see as “waste”, and this conditions the opportunities that lie there.

Naudé Malan
Dr. Naudé Malan is a senior lecturer in Development Studies at the University of Johannesburg. In 2013, Malan launched a technology development initiative where technology was designed alongside urban farmers in Soweto called Izindaba Zokudla Farmers Lab.
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