UNEP Dinner: Why Do We Waste So Much Food?

By Marianne De Nazareth
Freelance Journalist - India

FAO: 95% of food loss and waste in developing countries are at the early stages of the food supply chain.
Food waste

Imagine being part of a huge party where hundreds of ministers and high-level officials dined on perfectly good food grown by Kenyan farmers, but rejected by UK supermarkets due to their external imperfect shape?

At the headquarters of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi, this unusual party was held to highlight a major campaign to cut massive levels of global food loss and waste which happens across the globe and not just in Nairobi.

The zero-waste reception was hosted at the first UNEP Governing Council meeting in Nairobi during February. It focused on the new “Think.Eat.Save. Reduce Your Foodprint” initiative launched in January by UNEP, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and partners such as Feeding the 5,000 and Messe Dusseldorf.

This was essentially to encourage consumers and large super markets to take quick measures to cut the 1.3 billion tonnes of food lost or wasted each year.
“No economic, environmental or ethical argument can be made to justify the extent of food waste and loss currently happening in the world, and at UNEP we practice what we preach,” said UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner. “With this dinner we are demonstrating to retailers, consumers and policymakers who can push for change that the astonishing amount of food we throw away is not just edible and nutritious, but also delicious.”

Tristram Stuart, the founder of Feeding the 5000, a key partner organization has organized such dinners for years. Talking to Stuart he said, “If you can’t measure your food loss, you cannot manage it.” He visited producers across Kenya to source around 1,600 kilograms of unwanted fruits and vegetables for the meal which was whipped up into a delicious repast for ministers and delegates who all enjoyed it.

The food had been grown in Kenya, for the export market, only to be rejected, since it did not meet the tough standards over appearance, or orders were changed after the vegetables had been picked and packed for export. Some of this rejected production is sold at distress prices on the local market or donated. But since the quantities are so huge, local markets cannot sell it all and a lot of it is either left to rot, or fed to cattle. The poor Kenyan farmer is unable to bear the loss, with no proper returns and finds much of his produce wasted.

“It’s a scandal that so much food is wasted in a country with millions of hungry people; we found one grower supplying a UK supermarket who is forced to waste up to 40 tonnes of vegetables every week, which is 40 per cent of what he grows,” said Stuart. “The waste of perfectly edible ‘ugly’ vegetables is endemic in our food production systems and symbolizes our negligence.”

“But this dinner is also a huge opportunity to persuade supermarkets to change their standards, and by developing processing and other ways of marketing this produce, we can help to increase on-farm incomes and food availability where it is needed most,” he added. “This dinner, and the many Feeding the 5000 events we have run, aims to change attitudes and highlight best practices, by showing that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this food we so casually discard.”

While UK supermarkets are in the frame here in Kenya, Stuart said that similar practises are happening in respect to supermarkets which are opening doors in many parts of the developed world, and increasingly in parts of the developing world like in India.

A chef from Nairobi’s prestigious Windsor Hotel, utilized the collected food and cooked a five-course meal including gourmet delights as grilled Sweet Corn Tamales, yellow lentil Dal with tamarind and mangomisu and a dessert which was a Tiramisu with a tropical twist. Cournede and his team, also prepared mango chutney and candied fruit peels, which showed ways in which large quantities of fruit can be preserved while in season.

No food was to be wasted and so, guests were requested to doggy bag leftovers. Large quantities of fruits and vegetables were donated to MCEDO, a community-based organization that runs a school which offers a free meal for 580 children in Nairobi’s Mathare informal settlement.

“I was sceptical of how healthy it was to eat it at first,” said Ashraf Amin a journalist from Egypt, “ It tasted good and then I felt sorry for the farmers who were not able to get their money for the work they put in. Ironically I thought of GM and maybe the western world is pushing farmers to bring food which looks as perfect as possible and this will impact the environment and our health negatively,” he explained.

The focus of the campaign is food wasted by consumers, retailers and the hospitality industry. FAO states that worldwide, at least one-third of all food produced, worth around US$1 trillion, gets wasted in food production and consumption systems. Food loss occurs mostly at the production stages which is the harvesting, processing and distribution, while food waste  takes place by the retailer and finally the consumer who over buys and then throws it out.

According to FAO roughly 95 per cent of food loss and waste in developing countries are at the early stages of the food supply chain. The reasons being financial, managerial and technical difficulties in harvesting techniques; storage and cooling facilities in the warmer climatic conditions were it is grown. Poor infrastructure, packaging and marketing systems also play an adverse role.

Per-capita waste by consumers is between 95 and 115 kg a year in Europe and North America/Oceania, while consumers in sub-Saharan Africa, south and south-eastern Asia each throw away only 6 to 11 kg a year.

Interestingly, it is the developed world at the end of the chain where food waste is much larger. In the developed world, large quantities of food are wasted due to inefficient practices, quality standards that over-emphasis on appearance, confusion over date labels in supermarkets. Consumers too throw away edible food, due to over-buying, poor storage and cooking large meals with the leftovers being binned.

Per-capita waste by consumers is between 95 and 115 kg a year in Europe and North America/Oceania, while consumers in sub-Saharan Africa, south and south-eastern Asia each throw away only 6 to 11 kg a year.

“Together, we can reverse this unacceptable trend and improve lives. In industrialized regions, almost half of the total food squandered, around 300 million tonnes annually, occurs because producers, retailers and consumers discard food that is still fit for consumption,” said José Graziano da Silva, FAO Director-General. “This is more than the total net food production of Sub-Saharan Africa, and would be sufficient to feed the estimated 870 million people hungry in the world.”

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Marianne De Nazareth is a freelance journalist who contributes to The Hindu and The Deccan Chronicle in Bangalore, in addition to a host of magazines and website publications worldwide. In 2007 she upgraded her journalism skills by doing a two year degree called the Erasmus Mundus Masters in Journalism. She now teaches Journalism to Master's degree students at St. Joseph's College.

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