The term food waste usually conjures up uneasy images of the household rubbish bin and what goes in it – unopened bags of salad, chicken past its sell-by date, loaves of hard bread, all thrown away with guilt-ridden regularity. It’s less likely that people will envision mountainous tonnes of perfectly good french beans going to waste in Kenya, a shockingly normalised occurrence. Perhaps this is because the discourse around food waste has so often focused on the individual, taking the form of a powerful guilt trip tallying up our household waste; we throw out 22% of what we buy, which currently adds up to 4.2 million tonnes of food chucked away in Britain each year. Yet a new report on food waste in Kenya by anti-food waste organisation Feedback shines a light on the little studied and often overlooked wastage taking place at the other end of the supply chain, at the point of production.

Feedback reveals that on average a staggering 44.5% of food grown within Kenya’s horticultural export industry is rejected before it has left the country, sometimes before it has even left the field. There is little to no local demand for the french beans, mange tout and baby corn grown for export, and with no alternative market the rejected food is at best used for compost or fed to cattle, at worst simply dumped. The report tells a story of absurd levels of overproduction, waste and suffering in Kenya, and traces it unequivocally to two problems at the top of the supply chain: last-minute order cancellations or alterations, and cosmetic specifications – industry-speak for supermarkets’ virtual embargo on food that is not perfectly identical in colour, shape and size.

Last-minute order cancellations and alterations come under the umbrella term of unfair trading practices within Feedback’s report, a mild way to describe the climate of ruthless volatility within which Kenyan producers and exporters attempt to stay afloat. Farmers work to growing programmes passed down from importers and retailers, and the wastage is generated when orders are slashed or entirely cancelled at the last minute, often during or even after the harvest. Such cancellations were reported as occurring up to two or three times a month in some instances. Often the exporters take the hit, but sometimes it gets pushed further down to farmers who can incur losses of up to 100%. In either case, thousands of kilos of perfectly edible food are wasted.

The source of this fluctuation is not so much dramatic spikes and slumps in the western consumer’s appetite for french beans; rather it’s the ruthless juggling act the supermarkets perennially perform to secure the best deal for themselves. Edd Colbert, co-author of Feedback’s report explains: “Supermarkets know that fresh produce has a limited shelf life, it’s highly perishable and as such it loses its value very quickly, so using these trade practices allows them to retain power and to transfer financial risk down the supply chain.” Particularly in peak season, when Kenya’s main exports are abundantly available from other nations, such as Britain, Egypt, Guatemala or Morocco, supermarket buyers will chop and change orders to serve their interests.

Cosmetic specifications are the other major cause of wastage. Unnecessarily stringent aesthetic standards disqualify produce from Kenya that is too long, too short, too thick, wind damaged, pest damaged or suffers other myriad ‘imperfections’. Accounts of such practices might be depressingly familiar (particularly for the British, whose major retailers were named the strictest arbitrators of horticultural aesthetics in Europe by Kenyan participants in the Feedback study). The report focuses in forcefully on the practice of ‘topping and tailing’ french beans, the details of which might shock even the most jaded critic of supermarket buying habits. The average wastage level caused by topping and tailing stands between 30% and 40% – all so that the beans fit uniformly in retailer packaging. The example illustrates how a cycle of wasteful practices becomes entrenched, with farmers planting longer varieties of beans that lend themselves better to the rigours of being chopped. The end result is that mountains of ever-longer bean tops and tails are wasted instead of eaten.

Behind such cosmetic practices lurks the notion of the fussy consumer, who abhors anything less than reliable uniformity and will march off in protest to competitor retailers in search of identical baby corn. However, Feedback’s report suggests this is not entirely the case: Kenyan farmers insist that cosmetic specifications are routinely deployed as a front to mask what are really order cancellations. “When there’s a drop in supply, cosmetic specifications are relaxed and produce with blemishes or varying size can be sold – there isn’t any significant effect on sales. We know that consumers will buy this produce,” says Colbert. “Supermarkets use cosmetic specifications as a control technique, relaxing or enforcing these requirements when there’s oversupply or undersupply of the product”.

The report not only casts light on these dishonest trading practices and the waste they generate, but also on the overproduction — the excessive use of land, water, agro-chemicals, seeds, labour — implicit in this senseless system. Through a true cost accounting lens, if all the externalities (including the resources ploughed into those beans that didn’t make it to market as well as those that did) were to be included in the final cost, the price of french beans on our supermarket shelves would rocket. The true cost of Kenyan horticulture for export may be almost impossible to quantify with farmers and exporters discouraged from measuring the waste and “suffering in silence” for fear of losing business, according to one agricultural expert quoted in the report. Yet we clearly see the human toll here. Farmers emerge as the most vulnerable actors within the system, absorbing the brunt of the financial risk and often falling into cycles of debt, sometimes struggling to provide even the barest necessities for their families.

What can be done? The report stresses that unlike other costly attempts to reduce post-harvest losses in the global South (which result most often from poor infrastructure or inadequate storage), the type of food wastage taking place in Kenya can be addressed through simple changes in business and trading practice. For example, after coming under pressure from Feedback, Tesco has switched to just topping their beans, which has resulted in a third less waste at one Kenyan exporter. Likewise a shift to direct supplier relationships would demand that order cancellations be compensated under the Groceries Supply Code of Practice. Indirect suppliers are not protected under this legislation, affording the supermarkets generous wriggle room for chopping and changing orders. The Kenyan case study is a typical example of wastage caused across the global horticulture food chain – similar research is taking place in Britain, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Peru. But the kind of changes recommended by Feedback at the retail end of the supply chain – where the real power lies – could reign in this waste and overproduction, and reduce the environmental and human consequences.

Photograph: Remi Nono-Womdim

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