The ugly fruit and veggie problem

We know that a total of 31% of Australia's food waste is generated in primary production stage, within farms and in their distribution to other members in the supply chain: wholesalers, manufacturers, retailers and us. A large proportion of this food waste consists of fresh fruit and vegetables, but why does this number exist?

To understand that, we need to break down what "waste" means. The Australian National Food Waste Baseline Report defines food waste as any "food intended for human consumption that does not reach the consumer." Basically, anything that's meant to be eaten but isn't. In primary production, food waste is thus any produce that leaves the food system and go to the following destinations:
  1. Not harvested/ploughed in
  2. Composted/Aerobic digested
  3. Anaerobic digested
  4. Landfill

There are several reasons as to why food does not reach the consumer. In primary production, the causes are on-farm damage, market forces, cosmetic standards, perishability and processing and transport losses. Some of these causes will need to be addressed with better farming, packing and transportation practices, but cosmetic standards are caused by both demand for prettier produce and businesses marketing accordingly.

It's estimated that 40% of Australia’s edible fruit and vegetables are rejected before they even reach the shops, just because they’re a bit wonky or blemished. It's not unnatural to have slightly yellow tomatoes or misshapen carrots, but much of it gets culled from supermarkets or ignored on the shelves for "normal" produce.

The problem of “food cosmetic standards” has unfortunately been a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that many consumers view “prettier” produce as more valuable and of higher quality than “uglier” fruits and veg, which in most cases, is completely wrong. A curved carrot tastes just as good as a straight carrot, and it looks the same when you chop it up to put in your bolognese!

But because of this, businesses have responded to consumer demand by implementing cosmetic standards and marketed “acceptable” produce to be of certain size, shape and appearance. For example, we have become used to seeing asparagus of similar lengths and certain shapes of potatoes in stores. Anything “other”, despite being equally nutritious and delicious, is rejected, making businesses are reluctant to stock it.

With a little bit of food education, we can overcome judging our fresh fruit and vegetables for having a few bruises or scratches! In similar vein, businesses also have a responsibility for revising what they sell and how they market it. For good ugly food to not go to waste, all members in the food system have to make an effort!