Five hundred United Nations officials were treated to a dinner of mis-shapen fruit and vegetables last week, in a bid to highlight the global food waste problem. The produce, which had been rejected as imperfect by UK and European supermarkets, was served in the form of a lavish meal to government ministers and officials in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi on Tuesday night.
The four-course dinner, consisting of grilled sweet corn tamales, lentil dal with tamarind and tropical tiramisu, was part of a week of the United National Environmental Programme Annual Summit. Asked mid-meal what they thought of the food, the officials all agreed it was ‘delicious’.
Kenya is a key supplier of fruit and vegetables to the UK and other European countries but up to 40 percent of the harvest is thrown away due to the stringent cosmetic standards of the supermarkets. Author and anti-food waste campaigner, Tristram Stuart, visited growers in Kenya – a country where many people go hungry – to witness the problems farmers face with their export orders and source the 1.7 tonnes of produce for the UNEP dinner.
Talking from Nairobi, Stuart said the colossal waste he saw shocked him, “I had heard about the food waste problem in Kenya for years but it’s not until you see it with your own eyes that you believe it,” he says. Stuart lays part of the blame for the situation on the “absurd packaging” that the Kenyan farmers are expected to fill.
“The French Beans have to fit perfectly into a certain sized plastic punnet. If they are too short, they are rejected. If they are too long, they are snipped off. Up to thirty percent of the bean can be thrown away. This is not just a waste of food but of resources – Kenyan land, water, labour and agrichemicals. Nature produces beans in various sizes and we need to start accepting that.”
Yet more food is wasted when supermarkets cancel orders at the last minute and expect the supplier to take the loss. Some of the produce can be sold on the local market but much of the food grown by farmers for export isn’t part of the traditional diet. “Kenyan’s don’t even recognise baby corn as a food,” says Stuart. “It is either fed to livestock of left to rot.”
The founder of the campaign group, Feeding the 5000, Stuart is hopeful that the appointment of a new Groceries Code Adjudicator, with the power to fine supermarkets that treat suppliers unfairly, will bring an end to this practice. “Cancelling orders after the harvest is an environmentally destructive and socially unjust way to do business. It has to stop.”
Stuart was pleased by the response of the delegates who attended the dinner, several of whom expressed an interest in partnering or supporting the work of the campaign in the future. However, Stuart is clear that we all need to take responsibility for food waste. “Consumers can start by asking for misshapen fruit and vegetables. Supermarkets work on the ratio that for every customer who complains, there are a hundred more who think the same. We can all talk to the Customer Services Desk.”
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