John Craven's country matters - The madness of throwing away decent food

Throwing away food because it doesn’t look perfect is foolish at a time when we need to increase food production

27th April 2010

Image: Sean Malyon

Ever since my Countryfile investigation into food waste (Sunday 17 January), people have been stopping me to say how disgusted they were to see perfectly good vegetables being thrown away – all because they didn’t meet strict supermarket standards of perfection. But how much are we consumers to blame for this waste?

Just about every other type of fruit and vegetable faces the same tough beauty test.
Vast amounts never make it from the fields to the shelves, despite last year’s decision by the EU to relax its rules on so-called wonky veg after 20 years, because one-fifth of farm produce was being rejected due to its appearance, with much of it being ploughed back into the land.

The will to change?
Now 26 produce items, from apricots to watermelons, can be sold no matter what their shape, size or sheen, while another 10, including apples and tomatoes, still have to be graded but can be sold misshapen for cooking. Yet that message seems to be filtering down very slowly to many retailers.
Perhaps they are in no mood to change things. Supermarket bosses have total control over what gets from the fields to the checkouts, and specifications for farmers and growers are precise and unforgiving. The Retail Consortium, which speaks for supermarkets, tells me they seek to provide only what we, the consumers, are prepared to buy.

Too many lumps and bumps
To me, perfection in greengrocery seems a chicken-and-egg conundrum: is it something we shoppers have always demanded or is it something we have been led to expect? We can certainly be fickle; in organic produce a few lumps and bumps are OK, but supermarkets believe countless customers would turn away if mainstream veg looked like that.
Yet when I showed purple sprouting broccoli that failed to meet aesthetic demands (stems too thick or too thin, a bit misshapen) to a group of shoppers, without exception they said they would prefer them because they looked more natural. As Sarah Pettitt, who heads the National Farmers’ Union’s horticultural committee, asserts: “We must get rid of the idea that food comes out of the ground looking perfect; what is really important is whether it has been grown with care and tastes good.”
Some produce, which would previously have got the thumbs down from supermarkets, is now making its way through their doors, but into the economy ranges. And while many tonnes of healthy fruit and veg are still condemned for purely cosmetic reasons, there is increasing concern in the UK over food security. Will our nation be able to feed itself in years to come if we can’t get enough imports, because of the demands of a booming world population and the effects of climate change?
Our farmers are being urged to increase production – but will they have much of an incentive if a disturbing percentage of their crop continues to be rejected?
The government recently announced a supermarket ombudsman to help protect farmers and suppliers from any abuses of power. One result of this could well be that more of what this country grows is actually eaten.

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