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Why world leaders were served with a platter of trash at UN

Chefs cooked up a lunch made entirely of food that would have ended up in garbage bins, hoping to highlight the extraordinary waste in modern diets and its role in worsening climate change.

world Updated: Sep 28, 2015 04:53 IST
Ban Ki-moon,UN General Assembly,Sustainable development goals
US President Barack Obama addresses a plenary meeting of the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit 2015 at United Nations headquarters in Manhattan, New York.(REUTERS)

World leaders accustomed to fine dining had a surprise on their plates on Sunday at the United Nations. Lunch made from food waste -- like “Landfill Salad” -- was served to about 30 world leaders who attended a global summit on sustainable development agenda.

Chefs cooked up a lunch made entirely of food that would have ended up in garbage bins, hoping to highlight the extraordinary waste in modern diets and its role in worsening climate change.

“Our lunch was produced from food that would otherwise end up in landfills, emitting methane, a potent greenhouse gas,” UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said.

“Food production and agriculture contribute as much to climate change as transportation,” Ban said, “Yet more than a third of all food produced worldwide -- over one billion tonnes of edible food each year -- goes to waste. That is shameful when so many people suffer from hunger.”

On the menu for the lunch at the UN headquarters was the “Landfill Salad” made from unwanted vegetable scraps, stalks and outer leaves salvaged from the waste of big food producers, and liquid drained from a can of chickpeas. There was a vegetable burger made of pulp left over from juicing, which typically wastes most of the produce.

The burger came with fries created from starchy corn that would typically go to animal feed -- which along with biofuels is the end product of the overwhelming majority of the 90 million acres (36 million hectares) of corn grown in the United States.

“It’s the prototypical American meal but turned on its head. Instead of the beef, we’re going to eat the corn that feeds the beef,” said Dan Barber, a prominent New York chef who co-owns the Blue Hill restaurant.

“The challenge is to create something truly delicious out of what we would otherwise throw away,” he said.

Barber crafted the menu with Sam Kass, the former White House chef who drove the anti-obesity “Let’s Move” campaign of first lady Michelle Obama.

The United Nations welcomed the two chefs for the lunch, even though the world body rarely brings in outside cooks, especially during the ultra-high-security General Assembly.

Kass thought of the waste-lunch concept as he learned about year-end UN climate negotiations in Paris, which aim to reach a far-reaching global agreement to tackle the planet’s worsening climate change.

“Everybody, unanimously, described it as the most important negotiation of our lifetime,” he said.

But food waste “was not something that was being discussed at that point, except in small environmental circles,” he said.

Also on the menu was the “Spent Grain Bread” that was baked from grain mash left over from brewing and distilling process, and unrefined oil extracted from squash seeds.

For dessert, outer shell of cocoa bean, the dried skin, the material left over after pressing nuts for oil and pulp of the coffee cherry were turned into “Cocoa Husk Custard”.

The conversation over lunch was, of course, about climate change and poverty.

Ban said the lunchtime consensus was that the agreement to be reached at the Paris climate change conference must “strengthen resilience to climate impacts, with a focus on the poorest and most vulnerable”.

Vast contributor to climate change

Major world leaders took part in Sunday’s lunch that was led by French President Francois Hollande and Peruvian President Ollanta Humala.

According to UN figures, 28% of agricultural lands around the world go to produce food that is lost or wasted.

The loss each year is the equivalent of 3.3 billion tonnes of carbon responsible for climate change -- which would make food waste, if it were a nation, the biggest emitter after China and the United States.

“It’s just unthinkable, the inefficiency in our system, particularly when you look at something of this magnitude,” Kass said.

‘Delicious’ social change

Barber earlier this year ran a pop-up restaurant in New York sourced from food scraps and is the author of the book “The Third Plate” that has championed a global approach to his farm-to-table philosophy.

He said that the elimination of food waste was in fact an ancient rather than modern idea, as historically cooks would use everything edible at their disposal.

“The idea of doing a ‘waste dinner’ would not have existed in the 1700s,” he said.

“The westernised conception of a plate of food is enormously wasteful because we’ve been able to afford waste,” he said.

Food waste rates are even higher in the United States, which is blessed with vast agricultural resources.

Barber expressed hope that events such as the lunch could gradually change food culture.

“The long-term goal of this would be not to (be able to) create a waste meal,” he said.

“You don’t do that by lecturing -- you do it by hedonism, by making these world leaders have a delicious meal that will make them think about spreading that message.”

First Published: Sep 28, 2015 04:45 IST