It is six o'clock and in the twilight of a chilly autumn sunrise a corner of City Deep in Johannesburg shivers with activity. Dozens of trucks – from bakkies to 18-wheelers – navigate invisible queues towards and away from loading bays at six giant warehouses.
It is Tuesday morning, and the Johannesburg Fresh Produce Market is open for business.
The self-proclaimed largest fresh produce market in Africa sees more than one million tonnes of fresh produce move through its grounds every year, with an annual turnover of R4.4-billion.
This heart of agricultural commerce feeds arterial lines that run the length of the country. Boxes of apples, tomatoes, avocados, onions and spinach, among many others, leave the market with small business owners who come every morning for their fresh produce, as well as some of South Africa's largest retailers.
But this is also one of the many stages between the farm and the table where food is lost. Research by Susan Oelofse at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research last year found that more than half of the fruit and vegetables grown in the country is wasted – about 3.6-billion kilogrammes a year.
For some perspective, if the wasted fruit and vegetables were 10kg bags of potatoes, every person in Johannesburg could receive a bag of potatoes once a week for a year, and there would still be food left over.
Ninety-six percent of losses occur before fruit and vegetables find their way into consumers' fridges.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 1.7-million deaths worldwide (2.8% of the global total) are attributable to low fruit and vegetable consumption. The WHO recommends that a person consume at least about 400g of fruit and vegetables daily.
Ronel Stolz – a sales representative with RSA Market Agents, a national agency that handles fresh produce for farmers and sells it to buyers – says that up to 10% of the fresh produce they receive from farmers is already rotting. She works in the cavernous fruit hall at the market, which looks like a cargo terminal at an international airport, with caterpillar-like wagons carting boxes in and out of the hall.
"If we get 400 boxes [of fruit], sometimes 30 to 40 of them can't be sold," she says.
If a box contains between 60 and 130 apples, it means between 1800 and 5200 apples are lost. If the average apple weighs about 150g, 450 to 1300 people could consume their WHO-recommended daily fruit and vegetables from the apple equivalents that are lost in one consignment.
If the food is spoiling, the market is tasked with disposing of it. Market quality assurance manager Craig Pillay, who is responsible for monitoring the quality of the produce, says only about 1% of food is destroyed.
However, if the market moves one million tonnes of fresh produce that means 10 000 tonnes are lost every year.
Post-harvest technologists based in South Africa say many of these food losses are avoidable through technology to prolong the food life.
Pesticides and transportation
"You don't need to produce more [food]," says Elke Crouch, a post-harvest technologist at the University of Stellenbosch, "but save what you have."
Losses raise food security concerns, but inputs – money spent on fertilisers, pesticides and transportation and finite resources such as water – are also being wasted, and the produce consumers buy is more expensive as they bear the brunt of the input costs.
Post-harvest research chair Umezuruike Opara, based at Stellenbosch University, says: "Agriculture is one of the major users of scarce natural resource, such as land, water, energy… The use of production inputs and resources such as carbon-intensive fuel, fertilisers and pesticides is also a major contributor to the cost of food."
When food is lost, the money and resources that go into making it are lost too.
Experts agree that improvements in the logistics chain could reduce losses, and research has a pivotal role to play, but research costs money.
Most of the post-harvest research in South Africa focuses on fruit, rather than vegetables, because that is where the export money is. The department of science and technology funds a post-harvest innovation programme, but this also focuses on the fruit industry.
"Research is expensive," says Richard Hurndall, a post-harvest fruit specialist at HortGro Science, an umbrella research organisation for the fruit industry.
Small profit margins
"The vegetable industry doesn't have the turnover."
According to the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, the gross value of vegetables (excluding potatoes) in 2010-2011 was R7.86-billion, substantially less than fruit's R17.22-billion.
HortGro Science's R22-million investment in research comes from an industry levy, which "funds research to solve producers' problems", Hurndall says.
If the fruit industry was not doing research, "we wouldn't have certain markets because of the restrictions in place. We have to do research to get around them."
But the vegetable industry does not have the cohesion or money of the fruit industry, says Lise Korsten, a post-harvest pathologist at the University of Pretoria.
It comprises small producers with small profit margins. Since the cost of research is generally borne by the producer, vegetable producers – especially small-scale farmers – do not have the means to commission research.
However, even if the vegetable industry did have the money to conduct post-harvest research, South Africa has very few experts in the field. According to Korsten, there are only five.
Keeping produce fresh can be as simple as better storage
If you are wondering how well your food was handled before it hit the supermarket shelf, look no further than broccoli. Yellowing florets are one of the first indicators of bad supply chain management.
It all comes down to ethylene and temperature.
Ethylene is a ripening hormone found in plants, and it is the reason why you shouldn't store bananas with avocados.
Fruit and vegetables are either ethylene producers (bananas) or ethylene sensitive (avocados). When the two products are stored together, it speeds up the ripening process, which means the sensitive product has a shorter shelf life.
Also, the optimal storage temperatures for different products vary. For example, broccoli needs to be kept at 0C, and tomatoes need 10C. If you refrigerate them together, one will be worse for the wear.
Although this does not pose a problem for farmers, who often pool their single produce to transport, it is a serious challenge for retailers, who generally have mixed-load trucks.
One way to prolong the life of produce in a mixed load is to spray it with an ethylene inhibitor such as SmartFresh, which is made in the United States.
According to experts, SmartFresh has monopoly because it is allowed in the European Union, which has stringent regulations for imported produce. SmartFresh controls the production of ethylene, inhibiting the ripening process.
Umezuruike Opara, the chair of research into post-harvest technology at Stellenbosch University, rattles off a long list of technologies that could be used to preserve fresh produce, ranging from monitoring equipment and infrastructure to ventilated packaging. But though large producers are able to access this technology, small-scale farmers are the ones who are losing out.
"Often these farmers lack access to the latest scientific knowledge about how to increase crop yield with existing resources, when to harvest to achieve good post-harvest quality, how to package and store their produce to extend storage life, and meeting market standards and consumer demand," says Opara.
When the Mail & Guardian asked one of Fruit & Veg City's warehouse managers how he learnt about which foods should be stored together, he said he had had no formal training but learnt from "people inside the trade".
"You only make mistakes once," he said.
Keeping SA's children from wasting away
More than a third of child deaths in South Africa are attributable to malnutrition according to the World Bank. This is mostly because it increases the severity
The International Food Policy Research Institute's 2012 global hunger index found that 5% of
South African children are so underweight they are considered "wasted" – their muscle and fat tissue have started to "waste away".
According to the United Nations Children's Fund, malnourished children lack an adequate intake of proteins, vitamins and minerals, including those found in fresh fruit and vegetables.
In 1994, the government started a school feeding programme. According to the education department, the programme cost about R5.2-billion in 2013-2014, and will increase to R5.7-billion in 2015-2016. Of the 11.8-million pupils in public schools, 74% benefit from the programme. – Sydney Masinga