Launching our new bi-weekly guest blog series is TIR’s very own Martin Bowman.
Mis-shapes, mistakes, misfits, we’d like to go to town but we can’t risk it, oh.
Jarvis could have been singing about the rejected fruit and veg which is hidden out of sight, left to rot in fields around the UK for not meeting cosmetic standards. Too big. Too wonky. The wrong colour. These eccentric looking characters have been hiding in the shadows for two long, rejected by society’s demand for homogenous glossiness. It’s time for a wonky vegetable revival, and to embrace their quirks!
At the beginning of the film Food Inc., Michael Pollan says of the large, uniformly-sized, glossy tomatoes that line our supermarket shelves, that “It’s not a tomato, it’s the idea of a tomato”1. This is taken to the extreme by Japan’s current craze for “perfect fruit”, whereby a single melon can cost up to £100, grown with geometric precision to even out any natural diversity – “The ideal is a flawless sphere, pale green with an even, smooth pattern of webbing and of course the all-important T-shaped stalk.”2
Quality standards may in some circumstances reduce waste – for instance, where grading separates good quality grain from rotting produce3. Sorting and grading may lead the product to have more market-appeal, and thus command a higher consumer price, benefiting producer (and/or retailer) income4, and extra profits may allow farmers to invest more in post-harvest infrastructure which will in turn reduce food waste and increase their product quality.
However, quality standards may induce massive wastage. Since comprehensive food waste audits have not been carried out in any of the developed countries, it is difficult to put a precise figure on food losses due to quality standards. The FAO estimates that losses at the site of agricultural production in Europe are 20% for roots and tubers and 20% for fruits and vegetables5, far higher than developing country figures. Such food losses are primarily due to crop grading necessitated by retail quality standards6. A large US cucumber farmer estimated that “fewer than half the vegetables he grows actually leave his farm and that 75 percent of the cucumbers culled before sale are edible”7.
These cosmetic standards are also applied to producers in developing countries when they produce food for export to supermarket retailers, with estimates of bananas wasted “because they are too straight or bent, too small or too large”, varying between “20 to 40 percent of total crops”8
Losses due to quality standards can also arise at the processing level9. Quality standards may multiply waste further since in many cases if a minority of a batch is sub-quality, the whole lot will be wasted. For instance, one lettuce farmer reported that “if just 10 per cent of a pallet-load of around 700 lettuces fails to meet the standard, the whole lot is rejected”10
Homogenous produce, and fussiness about cosmetic appearance is widespread. But where has it come from? Who is fussy?
The European Commission has a number of food quality standard laws which are sometimes blamed, compelling producers to only sell produce that meets legal specifications. These rules of cosmetic standards were relaxed for many fruit and vegetables following a decision by the European Commission in 200811. This came into effect from July 2009, but only for 26 types of fruit and vegetable, but standards continued to be in place for “ten major crop categories which account for 75 per cent of the value of EU trade”12. EU member states are allowed to exempt these products, with appropriate labelling such as “product intended for processing”, but this may not occur since many states and some industry bodies opposed the relaxed standards13.
However, in most cases these laws are not the central barrier to wonky veg acceptance. For supermarkets usually have far stricter standards than required by law.
It is hotly debated whether supermarkets cause these quality standards. Consumer affluence and the cheapness of food are often blamed14, as are urban lifestyles15 and increased distance from food production16. Some customer surveys indicate that consumers indeed accord top priority to quality of a supermarket’s fresh produce in their decision which supermarket to pick17, compelling supermarkets to compete on this basis. There is also a common perception in supermarkets that “quality” for consumers is often judged cosmetically, and that even if they say they do not mind less attractive produce, their buying behaviour indicates otherwise18. In this view all that is required is for consumer demand to change, and the supermarkets will supply us with what we want.
However, others believe that retailers are more to blame for excessive quality standards, pointing to other consumer surveys which “show that consumers are willing to buy heterogeneous produce as long as the taste is not affected”19. Food shortages also occasionally force supermarkets to stock more heterogeneous produce. In 2007 “around 40 per cent” of the UK’s potato harvest was wiped out by extreme weather conditions, and the supermarkets relaxed their cosmetic standards temporarily for potatoes. Stuart reports that “none [of the supermarkets] reported a spike in customer dissatisfaction”20, indicating that consumers were not appalled by the wonky produce. A similar situation arose for all produce in 2012 following extreme UK weather conditions, and supermarkets temporarily relaxed their standards under pressure from the National Farmers Union21.
Others concede that consumers might be fussy, but that supermarkets have cultivated this attitude in consumers22. In this view, supermarkets are gatekeepers between producers and consumers, shaping the range of choices available to the consumer for their own ends. Supermarkets certainly have motives for wanting standardized produce. Standardized foods can be dealt with using standardized procedures – usually mechanized. Foods of different shapes will not fit into storage containers in optimal ways, and machines may only be able to handle foods of certain sizes and shapes23. This is especially important for concentrated and vertically integrated enterprises, since to manage their large throughput, they must control inputs and compel standardization for Fordist efficiency24. Supermarkets also receive higher profit margins for quality produce, and therefore may not be interested in less “value-added” produce.
Thus, qualities which are most desirable for the supermarket, not the farmer, may be built into contracts, which the supermarket has market power to foist on suppliers. Standardization jars with the unpredictability of nature25, which the farmer deals with but the supermarket does not, directly. Even highly capitalised farms will tend to grow a substantial quantity of produce that is not cosmetically perfect. Out-grades can result in significant costs for producers – in the UK, it has been estimated that “increasing the proportion of a farmer’s crop that gets into the supermarket by just 5 per cent can increase the farmer’s profit margins by up to 60 per cent”26. Moreover, as the majority of the value becomes bound up in higher grade products, the lower grade products find their margins progressively eroded – a situation which is dramatically worse in the case of smaller, less capitalised farmers (often producing for export), who inevitably produce more of such lower grade produce. For instance, Raj Patel interviewed one Ugandan coffee exporter who claimed that the cost they receive for lower grades of coffee is so low that they are “not worth transporting. It would be cheaper to destroy them”27.
If the supermarkets do indeed have a vested interest in outgrading produce, then consumer pressure may be more of a struggle, and it may need to be supplemented by a united front from farmers, manufacturers and possibly the government too. The NFU’s successful campaign to reduce supermarket cosmetic standards in 2012 is just a hint of what is possible – it saved an estimated “300,000 tonnes of produce”28.
Whatever the origin of our fussiness, it is clear that mis-shapes need to make a come back. To conclude, let us celebrate wonky veg with these eccentric characters exhibited by the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/gallery/2009/jul/01/wonky-fruit-vegetables-supermarket-eu
3 FAO (1981), Food Loss Prevention in Perishable Crops, FAO Agricultural Services Bulletin No.43, Rome, FAO, Section 2.4.1
4 Kader, A. and R. Rolle (2004), The role of post-harvest management in assuring the quality and safety of horticultural produce, Rome, FAO, Chapter 9
5 FAO (2011), Global Food Losses and Food Waste, Rome, FAO, p26
6 FAO (2011), Global Food Losses and Food Waste, Rome, FAO, p5
7 Gunders, D. (2012), Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill, Natural Resources Defense Council, p8
8 Stuart, T. (2009) Waste – Uncovering the global food scandal. Penguin Books: London, ISBN: 978-0-141-03634-2, p118
9 FAO (2011), Global Food Losses and Food Waste, Rome, FAO, p12
10 Stuart, T. (2009) Waste – Uncovering the global food scandal. Penguin Books: London, ISBN: 978-0-141-03634-2, p118
12 Stuart, T. (2009) Waste – Uncovering the global food scandal. Penguin Books: London, ISBN: 978-0-141-03634-2, 107
13 Stuart, T. (2009) Waste – Uncovering the global food scandal. Penguin Books: London, ISBN: 978-0-141-03634-2, 107
14 Bloom, J. (2010), American Wasteland, Perseus Books Group, p100
15 FAO (1989), Prevention of Post-Harvest Food Losses: Fruits Vegetables and Roots Crops, Rome, FAO, Section 7.2.4
16 FAO (1989), Prevention of Post-Harvest Food Losses: Fruits Vegetables and Roots Crops, Rome, FAO, Section 1.2
17 Bloom, J. (2010), American Wasteland, Perseus Books Group, p98
18 Bloom, J. (2010), American Wasteland, Perseus Books Group, p152
19 FAO (2011), Global Food Losses and Food Waste, Rome, FAO, p11
20 Stuart, T. (2009) Waste – Uncovering the global food scandal. Penguin Books: London, ISBN: 978-0-141-03634-2, p113
21 Gray, L. (2012), Thanks to the weather ‘wonky’ fruit and veg is back, The Telegraph [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/agriculture/farming/9495163/Thanks-to-the-weather-wonky-fruit-and-veg-is-back.html] accessed on 15/8/12
22 Stuart, T. (2009) Waste – Uncovering the global food scandal. Penguin Books: London, ISBN: 978-0-141-03634-2, p116
23 Bloom, J. (2010), American Wasteland, Perseus Books Group, p97
24 Weis, Tony (2007), The Global Food Economy, Zed Books, p13
25 Stuart, T. (2009) Waste – Uncovering the global food scandal. Penguin Books: London, ISBN: 978-0-141-03634-2, p115
26 Stuart, T. (2009) Waste – Uncovering the global food scandal. Penguin Books: London, ISBN: 978-0-141-03634-2, p112
27 Patel, Raj (2008), Stuffed and Starved, Portobello Books Ltd, p10