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Understanding the effect of social systems on food loss and wastage

Photo: Katie Campbell EarthFix/KCTS9 (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Roughly one-third of all food produced for human consumption each year – around 1.3 billion tonnes – is lost or wasted, and most of this is due to poor distribution networks, according to a recent report for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). On a per-capita basis, there is far more wastage in Europe (95-115 kg/year) than in sub-Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia (6-11 kg/year). Creating sustainable food systems and practices to feed the world’s growing population requires tackling the root causes of food insecurity and food wastage, including protecting the climate and reducing conflict and displacement.

But now social scientists are getting together, in various fora, to analyse and understand how social behaviour and systems can have a profound effect on food security and social sustainability.

Be local, buy local – community initiatives in The Hague, the Netherlands

As the need for food security and sustainability becomes more urgent, one of the vital ingredients required is direct contact between consumers and producers. This direct interaction also allows for less wastage in the distribution process. A foundation in the Netherlands called ‘Local Food The Hague’ is attempting to bridge this gap with community-driven projects that support innovations for food sustainability in the context of local food systems. The organization isn’t your typical definition of a foundation, but rather a community of like-minded individuals that have come together in a common physical space (in this case an old gymnasium) to bring people closer to producers in a convivial atmosphere.

Three years ago, the Lekkernasûh initiative was born – a weekly fresh food market in the Hague that provides organic produce sourced from local farmers, most of whom farm in the same province. Shoppers register online to order a package of fresh produce containing a mix of 10-12 locally grown vegetables and fruits. With this initiative, several supermarket-related problems are tackled – prices are low because the produce is locally sourced and doesn’t include the cost of transportation, and there is no unnecessary packaging and plastic. Lastly, the direct contact between the growers, the foundation’s volunteers and the people of the community make the market more than just a place of transaction – the aim is to ‘re-establish’ connections. The initiative has grown in the last 3 years, reaching over 900 people. ‘In the first few months, we had 100 people who placed orders. And now we have at least 200 regular weekly orders’, says Sebastiaan van Zaanen, coordinator of the initiative.

Another initiative operating under the same umbrella is ‘The Conscious Kitchen’. Started in September 2016, it focuses on the prevention of food waste. Once a week, volunteers visit local markets and supermarkets and pick up surplus produce. The surplus food is perfectly edible, and the following day, this gregarious team of volunteers prepares a delicious free dinner that is open to all.

‘Our group consists of people passionate about food waste and bringing people together. People are part of this project not for personal gain (we are all volunteers) but for the greater good. For the people who attend the dinners, they find community, belonging and friendship in an open and welcoming environment’, says Anubhav Kandpal, the coordinator of the Conscious Kitchen.

A future research project of the foundation is to look at how social processes have helped in bringing about a behaviour change. The researchers want to better understand what motivates the community to be part of these initiatives and how personal values and beliefs can form an integral part of the behaviour-change process. ‘Earlier we did some very basic surveys among community members but now we have an attractive opportunity which we can dive into more and understand the process and learn from it’, says Maria Cristina Temmink, Community Building & Transformative Learning Facilitator, who is researching social transformations around the project.

The initiatives of Local Food The Hague focus on bringing people together by creating an inviting and exciting atmosphere where urban consumers can interact with growers and become better informed of the ‘farm to table’ process.

‘Our initiative is not profit-driven, but value-driven. We don’t accumulate financial gains, but connections on the basis of trust, and this has actually brought us a lot. We are not perfect, but we are constantly learning and improving and honouring the values of trust and honesty. And that’s what makes the project so attractive, welcoming and inclusive’, says Maria Cristina.

An app to prevent food waste

On the other side of the world, in South Africa, researchers at Rhodes University and the Sustainability Institute, Stellenbosch, are tackling the problem of food waste using the benefits of mobile technology. The team, led by Heila Lotz-Sisitka, Nicola Jenkin and Mike Ward, has developed the ‘Food for Us’ app that allows farmers (both small and large) to sell, donate or barter surplus fresh produce that would otherwise have gone to waste to local buyers, from charities through to hotels. This provides small-scale farmers access to markets, and reduces surplus for larger scale producers through a localised network of producers and consumers. In a country where 39% suffer poor nutrition, this app provides tremendous opportunity for access to nutritious surplus food at a reduced cost.

But why use mobile phones? Across the developing world, mobile phones are playing key roles in disseminating information to encourage long-term behaviour change. In South Africa, mobile phone subscriptions have increased dramatically – rising from 8 million in 2008 to 76 million in 2016.1 In a recent national survey, 53% of households had at least one member who had access to the internet, with 33.7% of them accessing the net through mobile devices.2 Project researcher Sarah Durr adds, ‘Farmers are using cell phones to gain access to the market and use WhatsApp groups to discuss issues within the farmers associations.’ In the areas where she’s carrying out her research Sarah has also noticed that households tend to have at least one internet-enabled smartphone.

Mobile phones provide low-cost, accessible ways for food producers to interact with consumers. The app looks to enhance and implement sustainable food practices in multiple ways.

‘Firstly, the case management system that sits behind the app will allow us to generate significant data on surplus food and how it gets used or ends up being wasted. At the same time, the learning and research component will support an expansive learning process focused on value creation within communities of practice’, says Mike Ward, who is leading the development of the application.

The app also asks consumers to rate the producer as part of the transaction – which is placing some pressure on producers to ensure they have quality produce for exchange.

The ‘Food for Us’ app is in trial stages right now and has been developed with the participation of the community. Sarah adds:

‘This project is a collaborative project between the project team and the community. It is therefore very important to be transparent when discussing the application and its progress with the trial participants.’

Through a series of workshops with consumers and farmers, the community has provided essential information on what is needed to improve market accessibility and to effectively redistribute the surplus and reduce food waste.

A recent study suggests that we currently produce enough food for everyone to have an adequate diet, but that 815 million people still go hungry, in part due to food wastage throughout the food chain and poor distribution. Added to this, in today’s scenario, economic slowdown and a recent increase in conflicts are challenging access to food for some of the world’s most vulnerable people. Projects like Food for Us in South Africa not only help in tackling the problem of food wastage but also enable small-scale farmers to find new customers using low-cost technologies. Initiatives like Local Food the Hague are also connecting farmers and consumers, and providing an infrastructure to bring people together around food. Social research around projects like these is starting to provide valuable insights into how community-level activities can increase understanding and change behaviours around food wastage.

With these two projects, one can witness how social systems and behaviours can be mobilised to introduce and embed sustainable food practices – from consumers to producers. Ongoing monitoring in both projects will examine how social learning takes place, and the opportunities and outcomes for sustainable food systems. The problem of food loss and wastage is multi-faceted and complex and by addressing the problem right through the chain, we have a huge chance to minimise food loss and create a greater positive environmental impact.


  1. International Telecommunications Union (ITU), 2016.
  2. Statistics South Africa, 2016.


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