Supporting circularity in South Africa-EU food trade

Photo courtesy of Rajesh Rajput via Unsplash


South African wine is well known in Europe, but Europeans consume many more South African products, often without knowing. The European Union (EU) is the second largest market for South African exports, and food and beverages represent a particularly important category – think for instance citrus fruits, fish and seafood, grapes, avocados, macadamia nuts, fruit juices and sugar. Meanwhile, many European companies have invested in South Africa (SA) to serve the local market.

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      South African and European companies have introduced environmentally-friendly approaches to produce, process and market South African food and beverages, some of which end up in Europe. For instance, the amount of plastic used in grape punnets has been reduced considerably and organic fruit is increasingly sold with laser labelling instead of packaging. Dutch food retailer SPAR has installed solar panels on its six distribution centres in SA, and French food company Danone has reportedly reduced the water consumption intensity of its factory in Boksburg by 50% compared to 2017.

      However, we’re still far from a circular economy, where waste and pollution are designed out, products and materials are kept in use, and natural systems are regenerated. Worldwide, only 5% of plastic packaging material is recycled, so it’s no surprise that recycling rates are a concern for both SA and the EU. Food loss and waste is another major issue. In SA, an estimated 10 million tonnes of food is wasted per year, which is a third of the food it produces.

      Enhancing the circularity of SA-EU food value chains fits well with both the EU’s Green Deal and its Circular Economy Action Plan, and with South African efforts to promote circular economy principles and approaches. In this light, we conducted a study for the EU-SA Partners for Growth Programme to identify opportunities for promoting circular economy principles and practices in SA-EU food trade, and for promoting SA-EU trade by capitalising on trends towards increased circularity. We identified six ways SA and the EU can cooperate to support circularity in SA-EU food trade.

      1. Using the SA Plastics Pact and Food Loss and Waste Agreement to guide EU interventions


      Several people we interviewed stressed that the EU should build on promising existing initiatives, notably the SA Plastics Pact and the South African Food Loss and Waste Voluntary Agreement, both launched in 2020. They bring together companies, government entities and others. The initiatives have time-bound targets – 2025 and 2030 respectively – and their ‘roadmap’ and ‘implementation plan’ respectively outline activities to achieve those targets.

      These networks and agendas can guide choices of the EU and its member states, such as the type of private sector investments they seek to promote through blending operations in South Africa. For example, EU investment could target the recycling sector, which the SA Plastics Pact seeks to expand and upgrade.

      2. Promoting circularity through the SADC-EU economic partnership agreement


      The economic partnership agreement (EPA) between the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the EU can also be used to promote circularity. The agreement does not currently mention circular economy, but it does reaffirm the shared ambition to promote sustainable development. The agreement is up for review, providing an excellent opportunity to explore options for adding specific ambitions on circular economy. The review of the EPA could also be used to explore how EU trade-related development assistance to support EPA implementation could be used to promote greater use of circular economy practices by South African producers and exporters.

      3. Organising circular economy tours and other knowledge exchange and matchmaking activities


      South African and European authorities, businesses and knowledge institutes can benefit from knowledge exchange opportunities and matchmaking on circular economy issues. Several initiatives have been implemented in recent years on both sides, including circular economy study tours, meetings and virtual seminars. Further activities of this sort would provide opportunities for European and South African companies to connect and learn from each other’s experience with circular economy practices. Such activities are in line with the EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan, which states that circular economy outreach activities, including circular economy missions, will be stepped up.

      4. Enhancing opportunities for South African businesses to input into EU policy-making


      Public consultations and various other feedback mechanisms exist in particular stages of the EU policy cycle, allowing stakeholders to share their views on new initiatives or evaluations of existing policies. South Africans can participate, helping the EU to consider the implications of EU policies beyond the Union’s borders. The EU delegation in SA can play an active role in this regard, for example by proactively highlighting concrete opportunities for participation in public consultations. More broadly, the delegation can organise or contribute to meetings with industry representatives to discuss upcoming and ongoing policy initiatives.

      5. Investing in research for circular economy innovations


      Investment in research for circular economy solutions is important to support producers in SA in making the transition. For example, as cost is one of the key barriers for producers to adopt more sustainable packaging, it would be beneficial to explore innovative and cost-effective packaging solutions that can address complex industry-wide issues. Individual companies may not have the capability or motivation to do so. In addition, better insight into the volume and types of packaging in SA-EU trade is needed to pinpoint specific problems and design solutions. The EU research and innovation programme for 2021-2027 can play an important role here.

      6. Promoting circular economy principles internationally


      The EU has an interest in intensifying its cooperation with the African Union (AU) and its members on the green transition. SA-EU cooperation can contribute to advancing this agenda at the continent-to-continent level, given the circular economy interests and efforts of the South African government and other actors. The next EU-AU summit and the discussions leading up to it are a specific window of opportunity.

      Beyond this, the EU and SA can also join forces at the global level to promote a transition towards a circular economy. This can be done through various fora and at various levels. For instance, they can work together on the rollout of the brand new Global Alliance on Circular Economy and Resource Efficiency (GACERE). SA is a signatory of GACERE, which was initiated by the European Commission and launched in February 2021 for governments and organisations to work together and advocate a circular economy transition, greater resource efficiency and more sustainable consumption and production.

      We encourage the EU, its member states and SA to take inspiration from these collaboration possibilities. As for us, we will use them to guide further activities of the EU-SA Partners for Growth Programme. And we look forward to consuming many tasty South African products in the years ahead, produced and marketed in increasingly circular and environmentally sustainable ways.

      Tlale Matseke is a consultant at DNA Economics.

      The views are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ECDPM and DNA Economics.

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