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Food food everywhere, but not a morsel to eat

Opinionista • Paul Hoffman • 4 March 2020

South Africa can ill afford to waste food on the scale as described by Karin Schimke and Mark Heywood in two articles recently, and not when poverty and hunger are on the rise in the country.

According to Karin Schimke’s report in Maverick Citizen on 3 March 2020: 

“… ten million tonnes of food are thrown away in South Africa every year. Thirty-one million tonnes are produced every year. That means that a third of the food the country makes ends up in the rubbish tip. The CSIR has valued this loss at around R61.5-billion every year.”

Mark Heywood, writing in Daily Maverick expands on this theme.

South Africa can ill afford to waste food on this grand scale. According to the latest Afrobarometer research, poverty and hunger are on the rise in the country and on the continent.

The Bill of Rights is quite clear on the matter of food security:

“Everyone has the right to have access to sufficient food and water … The state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of each of these rights.”

The position for children is not subject to “progressive realisation”. 

“Every child has the right to basic nutrition, shelter, basic health care services and social services.”

[The words in quotation marks are taken from sections 27 and 28 of the Constitution, our supreme law].

The state must respect, protect, promote and fulfil these rights according to the express words of section 7(2) of the Constitution.

Furthermore, the public administration “must be governed by the democratic values and principles enshrined in the Constitution” in which “a high standard of professional ethics must be promoted and maintained” and “efficient, economic and effective use of resources must be promoted” in a way in which “public administration must be accountable”.

[The words quoted are from section 195(1) of the Constitution].

It is plain from the three reports referred to above, read with the constitutional obligations of the state and the public administration, that the situation in SA as regards wastage of food is both illegal and unconstitutional. The waste of food also poses a threat to the human rights of those who go hungry. 

It is unconscionable that so much goes to waste while so many go hungry.

The hungry have “the right to approach a competent court alleging that a right in the Bill of Rights

has been infringed or threatened, and the court may grant appropriate relief, including a declaration of rights”. A litigant acting in the public interest or for a group or class is entitled to sue.

The National Development Plan does not address the massive wastage involved in one-third of the food SA produces ending up in landfill sites around the country. Instead, on page 230, it blandly states that:

“Food security exists when everyone has access to sufficient, nutritious and safe food at all times. This implies that food must be available and that people must have the means to access it.”

None of its recommendations on food security addresses the wastage of perfectly edible and nutritious food; the closest one comes to addressing hunger is that:

“Innovative measures, such as procurement from small-scale farmers to create local buffer stocks and community owned emergency services, could be explored.”

No “innovative measures” appear to have been explored. The mere fact that a third of food produced in SA ends up on landfill sites suggests that little or nothing has been done to fulfil the obligations of the state in relation to provision of food, especially as regards vulnerable children whose rights are not hedged about with the weasel words “available resources” and “progressive realisation”.

The government needs to be put on notice that unless it takes urgent steps to rectify the criminal wastage of food in a time of hunger for half of the population, it will be sued for appropriate relief that will effectively bring an end to the waste and to the hunger reported in the sources set out above. Declaratory, mandatory and supervisory relief aimed at getting the food out of the landfills and into the hungry bellies of the poor can be fashioned on the basis of expert advice on the recycling of food. 

It is not beyond the wit or the capacity of the public service to create mechanisms that will end the waste by fulfilling the need of the hungry for food. The task at hand is enormous and cannot be left to the efforts of civil society volunteers and philanthropic institutions alone.

It is the function of government to perform its constitutional obligations “diligently and without delay”. It is a constitutional obligation to provide basic nutrition to children under 18 years of age. The obligation is not hedged about with qualifications concerning available resources or progressive realisation. The state is in breach of the obligation, while children in SA go to bed hungry. It is scandalous that this should be the position simply because no steps have been taken to divert a third of the food produced from being thrown away on landfills. DM

Paul Hoffman is a director of Accountability Now.

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