How pretty does your plate have to look? A report by National Resources Defense Council suggests that up to 24% of fruits and vegetables are discarded before even reaching the store – often due to imperfections in shape, size and color. An exact total is hard to come by, but research suggests that blemished or aesthetically imperfect food is a major driver of food waste. Indeed, the largest component of US landfills is wasted food. This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if the discarded food was composed of scraps and leftovers that have gone bad, but in many cases this food has never even reached consumers. Instead, it was rejected by producers because many retailers refuse to purchase produce that looks anything less than perfect.
All this waste takes a huge toll on producers who have no choice but to discard blemished food, or feed it to livestock instead of taking it to market. Misshapen potatoes and slightly scarred fruits are tossed aside because they simply will not sell. Farmers interviewed by The Guardian reported that throwing away or feeding livestock a quarter of their crops that don’t meet market standards for beauty is normal. One grower reported that they are able to fill a truck with 22,000 pounds of unsellable tomatoes every forty minutes during harvest. Sometimes, food is left to rot in the fields where it is grown. Even the most careful farmers have to throw away huge portions of their crop due to growing conditions and weather that distorts how the produce looks. The food is unmarketable, but completely edible.
Imperfect food that is thrown away greatly damages the environment. Water, land, and other inputs are wasted if the food is not eaten. Globally, it is estimated that 60 trillion gallons of water are wasted each year due to food waste. Furthermore, the fruits and vegetables that are disposed of in landfills or incinerators release methane, a greenhouse gas that traps significantly more heat than carbon dioxide. Indeed, food waste is responsible for 8% of global climate pollution, a higher percentage than most developed nations.
This is a huge problem. Perfectly nutritious and edible food, albeit potentially aesthetically displeasing, is wasted at the same time as some 48 million Americans are experiencing food insecurity. This waste could be easily leveraged as a resource to feed families that don’t always know where their next meal is coming from. The lack of access to a huge amount of perfectly edible food is a tremendous injustice.
A solution isn’t hard to imagine. Producers could sell their wares at a discounted rate to stores willing to sell imperfect produce. This would allow families to buy healthy food at cheaper prices, boosting both personal and community health and allowing them to stretch their budgets further. This solution would also help reduce food waste, aiding the environment by conserving resources and preventing the release of greenhouse gasses. Everyone stands to benefit. It’s a win-win-win.
Fortunately for us, consumers are beginning to realize the opportunity to reduce food waste and feed our nation by utilizing “ugly” produce. Social media campaigns have been launched to try and change the stigma around unattractive produce – letting people know that a small bruise or blemish doesn’t mean that a fruit is bad for you. In fact, there is some evidence indicating that marred fruit may have nutritional benefits that prettier products may lack. We need stores to start stocking imperfect produce. Doing so will help farmers, consumers, and the world. Some grocery stores, such as Whole Foods, have started selling imperfect produce in limited stores. Programs like these need to be expanded, and a greater range of food retailers need to take up the cause. Groceries will receive benefits as well. Stores in Europe that began selling imperfect fruits and vegetables see increased traffic and sales. For an industry that has thin profit margins, this could be a leg up over the competition. There is no good reason that so much food should go to waste. We need to embrace “Ugly” food, and in turn feed the world.
This twitter campaign is celebrates “ugly” produce! Look it up and post your own pictures celebrating imperfect fruits and veggies!