This is a guest article by Edd Colbert, a British food activist and researcher for Feedback.
Last December I traveled to Kenya to meet farmers and exporters supplying fresh produce to European retailers. I visited farms and pack houses around the country that were routinely throwing away vast amounts of perfectly good food and were losing money as a result. An average of 44.5 percent of the food grown for Europe was being discarded, not because of spoilage, but because it did not meet the cosmetic specifications of the major European retailers.
Every exporter and producer I met had experienced rejecting their produce because it did not meet the grade. In addition, the drive for producing perfect food meant that farmers always over produced, using unnecessary quanities of resources like land and water to grow food that would never be eaten.
However, there was a seasonality to this waste. When global supply of Kenya’s major exports, such as baby vegetables and green beans, were high so were the levels of rejections, despite exporting the best quality produce they had grown. When global supply was low, farmers and exporters found that they did not receive such high levels of rejections. Farmers and exporters expected higher levels of rejections during the low season, as the heavy rains in Kenya can lead to lower yields of “perfect” vegetables.
Feedback has worked with British farmers who also experience this phenomenon. “Perfect” produce is rejected one day because of cosmetic specifications, only for the same produce to be fully accepted the following day. In Guatemala and Costa Rica the story is the same: cosmetic specifications are enforced and relaxed at different times of the year as a pressure valve to control the volume of produce accepted by retailers and importers. Sometimes these changes are more explicit, with orders being cancelled at the last minute, leaving suppliers with nowhere to sell their food. Some countries, like Costa Rica, are able to sell surplus produce to competitive secondary markets. Yet many suppliers suffer in silence: terrified of losing business, they accept these trading conditions in order to hold on to their clients.
Last minute order cancellations, whether explicit or based upon false quality claims, unfairly transfer financial risk from the market towards those at the bottom of the food chain, resulting in colossal amounts of food and resources being wasted. With diminishing selling power, fresh produce suppliers are unable to sell their highly perishable produce, meaning it is fed to livestock or dumped.
Current discourse around food waste and losses incorrectly suggests that waste is an issue only affecting overconsuming western countries. Food losses are conversely seen as an issue prevalent in “underdeveloped” nations, creating a demand for technological and infrastructural investments. However, the practices that generate food waste on farms in Europe and the United States are increasingly affecting producers around the world, affecting rural development in some of the poorest regions on the planet.
Food Waste in Kenya, Feedback’s latest report, demonstrates the prevalence of food waste in countries like Kenya that is being caused by Western markets. Unlike food losses, which can require large investments, food waste can be prevented with simple changes to business practise. Abolishing cosmetic specifications, increasing transparency in supply chains, and improving contractual relationships between suppliers and final buyers has the potential to significantly reduce food waste and overproduction, boost on-farm incomes, and ultimately improve global food security. Unless we address food waste at this level, efforts to reduce food losses may lead to greater production, but will not guarantee that food is used for its intended purpose: to be eaten by people.