Evelyn Nguleka: A Farmer’s Perspective on Food Waste

Evelyn NgulekaBy Evelyn Nguleka, President of the World Farmers’ Organization

These remarks were delivered at the Champions 12.3 side event held on May 25, 2016, at the second session of the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya. 

My name is Evelyn, I’m the President of the World Farmers’ Organisation. This is an organisation with a secretariat in Italy, but has membership in about 50 countries. So a number of you sitting here, your farmers are members of our organisation.

A lot of things have already been spoken about and a lot of facts have been shared to convince us that we are actually wasting food. My perspective as a farmer – to bring it back to you, I don’t how many of you are farmers – is that a lot of times, the question comes back to us as food producers. Policymakers always come to us and say we need 60 percent more food produced to feed the booming population. But then, if you really think about what has been said by everybody ahead of me, do you believe that? Sixty percent?

I think we are blaming the wrong people. Not to say that farmers are not going to produce more food, but I think a lot has already been done to produce food and what are we doing with what we have?

If we do not change the practices that we have, even if we produce 100 fold, we are still going to be in the same situation. And that is critical. I have a farmer’s perspective. I also want to combine this with climate. We are all worried about climate change. Food production is directly linked to climate change. It’s the environment that we’re living in, and we need to live in an environment that is going to be able to sustain us. But if what we are producing is actually not being used and is being thrown away, and it’s contributing to making the earth a place where you and I cannot survive, then we need to stop and think. As a farmer, there are certain things that I should do, but you as a consumer, as a policymaker, as an industry, there are also a number of things that we should do.

As Champions, we believe that we are all in this together. No one company is going to solve this. When we look at the developing and developed world –  I think we’ve heard what the UK and Denmark are doing and what the U.S. is doing – probably most of you who are coming from developing countries like myself might think, “Oh OK, that’s not really our problem. We don’t throw away that kind of food.” Coming from Africa, Asia, South America you might think, “Look, my problem is I need food, not that I’m throwing away food.”

I come from Africa and we have a problem. As a farmer, the first problem begins with me. I grow food, enough to last probably a whole year, but what do I do?  outside of grains, think about corn, rice, soy beans, etc., we do not have the correct storage facilities, the correct information, correct know-how on how these foods should be preserved so that it can last us the next season.

If you are moving away from the equator, for example, we have one rainy season. If I have corn, I should make sure that corn lasts until next year. How do I take care of that? And that’s what we’re telling the policymakers, the industry, the business people: this is an area that we need to look into. We need investment in storage so this food can be as fresh and nutritious as it is today for five months down the line.

Secondly, food can be distributed. I’ll give you a shocking statistic that we received just two weeks ago from the Minister of Food and Agriculture: In the southern part, there are only two countries that can stand up and say that they are food secure, Zambia and Tanzania. So the next question is how does Zambia get food into Malawi, into Angola, into Uganda, into our neighboring countries? That is not something that we expect a farmer to do.

I might be willing or be able to share food because I have it, but the infrastructure doesn’t exist. Sometimes we think that it’s not related to food, but it’s very much related to it.  One part of our continent can be suffering; some of the food that is being thrown away in the market, in the UK, in the USA can be shared with other people if we have easier transportation and communication to be able to save this food.

So, that is the second challenge that I would like policymakers to look into. What is the infrastructure from the farm to the storage and on to the consumer? That is critical.

The other thing is the value addition. A number of us already have had some juice here. It is very healthy to eat an apple or a mango, but I can get mangoes once a year in my country, in the rainy season. So are you going to tell me that I’m only going to eat mangoes and all of you who visit my country should only eat mangoes when it’s rainy? You cannot. Or you can only eat apples in a certain season because thereafter you have no access to it?

My challenge is, what have policymakers and the industry done to the value addition of the food that we let go to waste? If you come in the rainy season, you are stepping on mangoes and tomatoes and apples and bananas almost everywhere in every market that you go because they are too ripe and no one is going to eat them. But then, this is food that can either be dried or preserved as pulp and served as juice. These are things that we should be thinking about.

We are already taxing the environment to produce this food and we just leave it. We are hoping that next year we’ll have another opportunity to produce, and unfortunately it’s not every year that you have an opportunity to produce food. The climate has changed. This year, we had a lot of people who could not produce because it was too dry. In some areas, it was too wet. So how many lives could have been saved if the food that they had wasted the year before was still available, if value addition could have been developed in these countries? Those are things that we should be able to look at.

Another controversial one that I would like to look at is the cost of food, and I normally get into problems when I speak with policymakers about it. My job is to make sure that a farmer is not an ATM machine. Unfortunately, I think we’ve turned farmers into an ATM machine when we think you just go in, plug in and get out what you want to eat. A farmer is a human being like you and me. We have needs. A farmer also needs to send children to school. A farmer needs to pay school bills and medical bills.

I always make a joke about this when I’m talking to Ministers in my country and I say “Up to now, my son is in the university and none of you have given me a scholarship because I’m the President of the farmers,” or “I have come to bring my child to the hospital and they have told me, ‘OK, you do not have to pay because you are feeding us’.” I still have to pay! So we have to start looking at food as a cost and that is something that we’re not thinking about.

Policymakers are going in one direction: food has to be cheap. But is food production cheap? It is not. If you ask us to produce food sustainably, using less chemicals and less land and yet you refuse to pay for it, that doesn’t make sense. We have to get to a point where a farmer will be rewarded correctly for the food that they are producing. Then, we’ll reduce the amount of chemicals that we’re putting into the environment and you will be able to buy only that which you are able to afford, and that will bring down the amount of food that you are going to throw in the bin, probably by half.

I’m hoping not to wait until 2030. Because, today, there are more than 800 million who are sleeping hungry. Are you sure that 15 years from today, those that are sleeping hungry will be alive? We have already lost lives. We have already lost children because we threw away food. It is critical for us to step back, and this is why I volunteer to be a Champion. This is why I want to speak about why we need to save food. We have already produced it. We have already damaged the environment. We have already spent money to produce this food. We have already put in the water, and now water is becoming a critical resource.  There are some areas where you cannot get a clean glass of water to drink. And as a farmer, I’m also looking for water to grow my food.

After I have used so many expensive resources to produce this food, what do we do? We put it into the bin. I think this should stop. If we love ourselves and if we love Mother Nature, let’s step aside. Let’s see what we need, let’s buy just what we need and eat what you need.

I also just want to make a comment on the extremes that we’re talking about. When we’re talking about the U.S., we’re talking about obesity. They’re eating so much food. On the other side, we’re looking at people who do not have even three meals a day. What kind of world are we creating for ourselves? We need a balance where everybody should have enough to eat.

We are one global world. What applies in Africa should also apply in the United States and in Asia. It’s disheartening for me as the President of World Farmers’ Organisation that when I preach in Africa my message should change because I’m talking to people who do not have food and then when I cross the hemisphere I should change my language because I’m talking to people who have produced so much and then have just thrown it away.

We need to get together, we need one another and this is why as Champions we need to be in this with one another. I hope this is heartbreaking enough for you to make sure that we stop wasting food and we move forward and make this continent healthy and sustainable. Maybe not for us – probably our time is gone –  but for our children, for the next generation.

I thank you.