FOOD: Waste not, want not

Photo: Elizabeth Blunt/IRIN
Tom Smith, duty manager at the People's Supermarket, holding a cucumber rejected by a major supermarket on the grounds that it was too big!
JOHANNESBURG - LONDON, 19 May 2011 (IRIN) - A recent study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)  estimated global food loss and wastage at 1.3 billion tonnes a year, which it calls a “major squandering of resources”.

The amount of food wasted is shared almost equally between industrialized and developing countries. But while developing country losses are largely the result of pests, diseases, poor storage and inadequate transport for agricultural produce, in richer countries, perfectly edible food is rejected by retailers or thrown away as household waste.

IRIN considered these issues from two extremes: London and Namibia.

About 20km from the Angolan border in semi-arid northern Namibia, Paulus Amutenya, a small-scale vegetable farmer, has managed to more than double his output with drip irrigation and soil conservation techniques over the past four years. But growing is only part of the battle. Mounds of rotting butternuts and onions lie in his yard.

Amutenya was involved with a UN Development Programme (UNDP) pilot project aimed at helping communities adapt to climate change.

While Amutenya was better off than before, he still lost thousands of dollars worth of vegetables every year because he did not have cold-storage facilities and access to markets to sell his surplus.

When 2011 began it seemed no different. "I even tried the local supermarket at Outape [the nearest town, about 45km away], but they prefer bringing their vegetables in from their regular suppliers in South Africa," he said.

Then he and 49 other small-scale farmers who had benefited from the project linked up with UNDP to pool their income to build a cold-storage facility and start a market.

The farmers raised almost US$19,000, with UNDP contributing more than $200,000.

"We hope to open the market next month [June]," he said. They also intend to supply neighbouring communities across the border in Angola.

Storage questions

British farmers take for granted the pesticides and improved seeds of which their Namibian counterparts can only dream. They have dryers to stop grain going mouldy, and temperature-controlled granaries to store it. They not only have cold storage, but refrigerated trucks for milk and other perishable produce. Losses at farm level are low.

More than 75 percent of British food is sold by just four big supermarket chains, which can dictate prices and produce. Some waste is for cosmetic reasons: fruit and vegetables are thrown away because they are the wrong size, too crooked or knobbly or not the right colour.

Meanwhile, more basic issues such as lack of storage and access to any market at all account for a large portion of food losses in developing countries, the FAO report says.

Developing countries lose about 630 million tonnes of food every year - 30 percent in the field, said Shivaji Pandey, director of FAO's plant production and protection division.

Photo: Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN
Hausa women selling milk at a market in Magaria district in the Zinder region, Niger
Andreas Shimbolweni, manager of the UNDP project in Namibia, said reducing these losses "has to be built in governments’ strategies; small farmers cannot do it by themselves".

Many developing countries have to contend with high temperatures and humidity, which increase vulnerability to disease and spoilage. Also, in developed countries almost all seeds available to farmers are resistant to diseases and temperature swings, which is rarely the case in developing countries, says Pandey.

Practical Action is one of many NGOs looking for solutions in countries where electricity and fridges are beyond the reach of most. Neil Noble of its technical information service says it has developed two kinds of coolers, which are being tested in Sudan and Nepal.

First, a clay urn with two chambers, one with water to keep the produce stored in the inner chamber cool. This was introduced at the household level in Sudan to help families store their vegetables and fruit for longer periods of time.

The other cooler is constructed on the ground with clay bricks using the same principle. "You can store bigger quantities in these containers, including staple grains," said Noble.

Room for imperfections

In Britain, farmers who can afford to, break away from the tyranny of the supermarkets. At a recent farmers’ market in north London, Gary Cox’s stall included bunches of wiggly spring onions and some highly irregular parsnips, and were finding ready buyers.

The FAO report sees such direct sales as one way forward, since it says that although supermarkets seem convinced that customers will not buy food with the “wrong” appearance, studies show the public is in fact less fussy.

“We are very mindful of waste,” Cox told IRIN. He sells some produce direct to restaurants, and some is delivered to homes. Anything not sold at the Sunday market goes to a discount shop where it is sold off cheaply. “And if it still doesn’t sell,” says Cox, “it goes to make compost and is put back on the land. It’s still not wasted.”

There are signs that the big supermarkets are changing. One chain, Sainsbury’s, now has a “Basics” range of cheaper produce. The labelling is candid about its imperfections. There are blemished potatoes (“No lookers; beautiful mashed”) and odd-shaped carrots (“All sizes – great when it comes to the crunch”).

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Even so, perfectly good produce is still being turned down. The warm spring brought one grower some particularly splendid cucumbers. “Too large,” said the supermarket chain that usually bought his salads. His cucumbers finally found a home at the “People’s Supermarket” in Bloomsbury, central London. Duty manager Tom Smith said the monster cucumbers were selling well. “And he lets us have the curly cucumbers you get in a second crop. The big supermarkets won’t touch them, but we find they are really popular.”

Vegetables and fruit with high sugar and moisture content are more susceptible to rotting and that accounts for most of the spoilage in developing countries, FAO’s Pandey told IRIN.

In terms of reducing wastage, Smith said, the real breakthrough had been the company’s decision to open an in-store kitchen to use up produce that would otherwise go unsold. The cooked foods section is one of its most profitable and only about 2 percent of fresh produce is thrown away.

Smith also sells fresh produce loose rather than pre-packed. Customers can buy just what they need, and there is no “sell-by” date to make them throw away food prematurely.

Both are points taken up in the FAO report, which also criticizes supermarkets for offering larger packets, or “buy one, get one free” promotions, encouraging customers to buy more than they need, rather than simply reducing prices.

The real food wasters in the UK are the customers rather than the shopkeepers – 8.3 million tons of food are thrown away each year by British households, against 6.5 million tons lost in the supply chain, according to Waste Reduction Action Plan research.

Sian is a Londoner with three children younger than six. “If the children don’t eat what is put in front of them I tell them it’s a waste, and every so often I try to explain that there are people in the world who don’t have enough. But even the oldest is only five and thinks everywhere in the world is like this. They just can’t imagine a situation where there isn’t enough food.”

Ultimately, as the FAO report says, “The most important reason for food waste at the consumption level in rich countries is that people simply can afford to waste food.”


Theme (s): Food Security,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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Lineo Makojoa, 15, orphaned by AIDS, prepares dinner for her grandparents in Ha Majoro Village, Lesotho
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