Food rejected by Europeans provides a feast in Nairobi

Chef Ray Cournede shows Kenyan-grown broccoli rejected by supermarkets. UNEP.

The United Nations treated government ministers and officials to a meal of blemished African fruit and vegetables to highlight how perfectly edible food is being rejected by European supermarkets.

The five-course meal for 500 delegates at a week-long United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) event in the Kenyan capital included grilled sweet corn tamales, yellow lentil dal and mangomisu – a tropical version of the Italian dessert tiramisu.

The food was all reject-grade by the standards of European buyers, who sometimes cancel orders after produce has been harvested. The rejected food often rots or is fed to livestock because farmers produce more than local markets can absorb.

"No economic, environmental or ethical argument can be made to justify the extent of food waste and loss currently happening in the world," said Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) which hosted the dinner on Tuesday (19 February).

"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," he said.

Poto?nik promotes resource efficiency

The dinner was part of the UNEP's Global Ministerial Environment Forum. Though he did not attend the UNEP dinner, EU Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik told the forum on Tuesday that the EU was committed to combating waste of energy, food and other resources.

Food, he said, is an example "where resource efficiency can be the key to more sustainable production and consumption. This can be through avoiding the huge levels of food waste both on the production and consumption side, by promoting agricultural practices that reduce impact on soils and require less water and fertiliser.

"If pursued in a comprehensive manner, this will help to provide nutrition for a fast increasing world population, help to keep prices in check, and remain within boundaries of what nature allows," Poto?nik said.

Low opinion of European market

A total of 1.7 metric tonnes of food was collected, both for the Nairobi meal and as a donation to local charities.

Tristram Stuart, a British founder of the Feeding the 5000 campaign group that worked with UNEP, said farmers singled out supermarkets in Europe as the worst of their buyers abroad.

Fruit and vegetables were often rejected for cosmetic reasons such as color or shape. French beans had to be exactly the right length, for instance, and any that were too long had to be cut short, with the ends fed to livestock.

"We are demonstrating the colossal scale of gratuitous waste, even in countries like Kenya where there are millions of hungry people," he said. "The waste of perfectly edible, ugly vegetables is endemic in our food production systems."

"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% of what he grows," Tristram Stuart, a British founder of the Feeding the 5000 campaign group, said at the Nairobi dinner. "The waste of perfectly edible 'ugly' vegetables is endemic in our food production systems and symbolises our negligence.

"But it is also a huge opportunity: by persuading 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."

The EU imports 40% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s agricultural exports – including nuts, fresh-cut flowers, tea, coffee, citrus fruits and vegetables – Commission figures show. Trade has nearly doubled in the decade since Europe began forging closer economic ties with African nations under EU commitments to boost trade and aid.

But foreign commerce doesn’t necessarily lead to prosperity. A decade of economic improvement and growing south-north trade “has not been translated into commensurate reductions in unemployment and poverty,” says the 2011 Economic Report on Africa.

With notable exceptions, many African countries offer uninviting climates for investment because of bureaucracy, protectionism, mercurial politics and primitive infrastructure. Rudimentary trans-national and trans-continental transport and banking also hamper commerce.

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