Nairobi, Kenya - On a farm a few hundred kilometres from the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, Samson Kibaki* is engaging in a strange ritual: chopping large chunks off his green beans. Every green bean grown on his farm is cut down by around a third before it goes to market, and the remainder tossed on a heap. The reason? Beans are bendy and the cellophane packets in UK supermarkets are short and straight.
In a country where 3 million people are dependent on food aid, he wastes 40 tonnes of edible green beans, broccoli, sugar snaps, and runner beans every week, primarily because they are the wrong size, shape or colour. This is enough to provide meals for over 250,000 people, and equates to 40 percent of his entire crop.
Kibaki is supplying one well-known British retailer, but campaigner Tristram Stuart, who spent the past week visiting Kenyan farmers in the run up to a UN Environment Programme (UNEP) dinner to highlight the problem of food waste, says he knows of many others in similar situations.
“The unfair and unnecessary practices of European supermarkets are forcing Kenyan farmers to waste colossal amounts of food while millions of people go hungry,” he told Al Jazeera in Nairobi. “Sometimes whole consignments are rejected because they contain produce with slight cosmetic defects.”
He refuses to name individual supermarkets for fear that farmers will face repercussions.
Stuart, who founded the British food waste campaign group Feeding the 5,000, also visited several packhouses in Nairobi, where farmers’ produce is sorted and bagged. “I saw huge skips and crates full of rejected whole beans, half beans, baby corn and mange tout lying out in the sun, all of which without exception I’d be ready to eat,” he said. “If I’d have grown them in my garden I would have been proud.”
'Left to rot'
At a minimum, 10-15 percent of farmers’ produce will be rejected, says Stephen Mbithi Mwikya, chief executive of the Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya. “But if water is stressed your produce will be smaller and less uniform, and you will lose more.”
Growers do what they can to find local markets for rejected vegetables, but this is often not possible. “Not everyone here in Kenya eats baby corn and the market is not big enough to soak up the good food they’re producing,” Stuart says. Some is donated to charities, the rest is fed to animals, composted or left to rot.
According to the Kenyan government, 30 percent of Kenyan children are undernourished and 10 million people suffer from food shortages and poor nutrition. Wasted food also represents a major loss of water, energy, fertilisers and land.
In some cases farmers are actively prevented from selling or giving rejected food to people. In one contract seen by Al Jazeera, a packhouse supplying a UK supermarket stipulated that “green waste collected shall only be used as animal feed”, defining "green waste" as “fine beans, runner beans, peas, courgettes, corn husks and pea pods”.
“In a country where so many go hungry, I can’t see why you would specify that food cannot be fed to people,” says Stuart. “To me this seems pernicious.” According to the Kenyan government, 30 percent of Kenyan children are undernourished and 10 million people suffer from food shortages and poor nutrition. Wasted food also represents a major loss of water, energy, fertilisers and land.
But cosmetic standards are not the only supermarket practice that Kenyan farmers resent. The retailers are also “notorious” for cancelling forecast orders, says Stuart, sometimes when produce has already been grown, harvested and packed - without paying any costs to farmers. As the retailers don’t pay for this waste, they have little incentive to reduce it.
This has not gone entirely unnoticed by UK authorities, and the practice may soon come under scrutiny from a new UK body: the UK Grocery Code Adjudicator, a policing outfit borne out of work done by the UK’s Competition Commission.
In 2008 a report by the commission found that “large grocery retailers were transferring excessive risks and unexpected costs to suppliers, by exercising their buyer power”. It cites last-minute changes to the “quantity and specifications” of orders as a potential “moral hazard”.
“If we get a call from a buyer in London saying ‘sorry, we can’t take your order tomorrow’, it has a terrible effect on farmers and exporters,” says Mwikya. “You can’t store fresh produce; if we can’t sell it in a day it will be lost.” Losses hit small farmers - who make up the majority of growers for the European market - particularly hard.
Earlier this week Stuart gave diplomats and ministers from around the world the opportunity to get a taste of what farmers are discarding. As part of the global Think.Eat.Save campaign, Feeding the 5000 sourced 1.6 tonnes of food from Kenyan farms that would otherwise have been wasted, and served it to dignitaries attending UNEP’s Governing Council and Global Ministerial Forum in Nairobi.
As the sun set on the UNEP lawn, guests were presented with "ugly crudités" at a drinks reception, followed by a three-course meal including yellow lentil dal with tamarind, warm broccoli salad, and mango tiramisu, while being entertained by Kenyan pop singer Eric Wainaina.
Ali Mohamed, Permanent Secretary at the Kenyan Environment Ministry, told Al Jazeera the dinner “was wonderful” and that the waste of food due to strict criteria on size, shape and weight was “very, very unfortunate”.
“We are benefitting a lot from the European markets, but that said there is some disparity in terms of trade fairness when food is subjected to such stringent conditions by other markets, namely the EU,” he said.
“Food and food accessibility is really an important issue for countries like Kenya, where every year at least 3 million people receive food aid.”
However, not everyone agrees that big supermarkets are to blame. Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, says it’s “completely wrong” to point the finger at retailers, arguing that until recently they had to conform to strict EU standards for fruit and vegetables.
“It was UK supermarkets that campaigned against these restrictions and were successful in getting many of them lifted four years ago,” he says.
He adds that the market in "wonky" vegetables has “grown rapidly over the last few years” in the UK, particularly in value ranges. “In the current difficult economic times, and with rising food prices, these products have been highly successful.”
Supermarkets also say they are working to help growers. A spokesperson for Sainsburys said that in the last year it had “held round-table sessions with 50 suppliers in Kenya and South Africa to discuss aspects of quality management including waste”. Tesco said it had been “including fresh produce of different sizes and shapes in our Everyday Value range for years”.
The problem of food waste is not confined to Kenya. Globally, one-third of all food produced - 1.3 billion tonnes - is wasted every year, and Stuart argues that consumers have an important role in tackling this.
“We can change this absurd process,” he says. “It’s up to all consumers to tell their food businesses that they’d rather see ugly produce on the shelves than see Kenyan growers out of pocket - and food - because of unnecessary cosmetic standards.”
*Name has been changed to protect the farmer’s anonymity.