Price of perfect-looking produce is rejection for 40 per cent that are misshapen

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 March, 2015, 6:20am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 March, 2015, 6:20am

I like to eat weird-looking food, whether it's crisps or cauliflower.

I habitually seek the nonconformist food products: the intertwined "love carrots", the kiwi twins, the apples with codling moth damage, the kale leaves the cabbage loopers have nibbled. I picked up this habit while I was working on an organic farm in California, where we grew everything from strawberries to chard to sweet corn. When we harvested "seconds" - the perfectly edible, often slightly more delicious, fruits and veggies that weren't quite pretty enough to offer to our customers - they went directly to our own kitchen.

That farm was lucky to have a built-in community of people excited to consume the odd ones, but that's not how the rest of our food system works.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimates that high cosmetic standards in the retail industry exclude 20 to 40 per cent of fresh produce from the market.

Sometimes farmers can sell unwanted produce to processors making jam or pickles, but as those systems rely increasingly on mechanisation, they become less flexible when it comes to shape and size. Tonnes of food - 800 to 900 million tonnes globally each year - rot in storage or don't make it out of the fields because farmers can't find a market.

The organic farm where I worked marketed primarily through a farm stand and a subscription service, so we had the luxury of communicating directly with our customers about why our produce looked the way it did. But farmers selling through distributors face very different standards. Some criteria are rightly based on food-safety and shelf-life considerations, but many are misguided ideas about what produce should look like.

By insisting on perfect-looking produce, customers cheat themselves of taste and variety.

I worked on a second farm that sent much more produce to the compost pile. Beet butts with deep vertical creases and knobby potatoes were doomed. Kohlrabi that had grown too fast and split and Brussels sprout stalks that had seen any aphid action also got axed, even though the bugs pose no health risk. Even on the organic farm, we had to leave a lot of chard in the fields - our subscription-service customers, who tended to accept or even prefer imperfect produce, objected to certain types of damage to chard leaves.

Farmers recognise that they're at the mercy of nature, and they plan accordingly, sowing extra seeds with the assumption that pests, diseases or weather will take out some of the crop. But when plants survive all of that, only to be rejected because they happen to be too small, a little twisted or not quite evenly coloured, the loss is harder to face. My heart broke a little as I wheeled barrows of unmarketable onions that had grown long and skinny instead of short and round to the compost pile.

The nutrients in that produce would go back into the soil and nourish next year's crops, which was a noble purpose in its own right. But it was not the future we'd planned for our seedlings.

Good farmers invest themselves in their crops with visions of feeding their communities. To see our produce fall short of its potential, our efforts thwarted by senseless prejudice, struck me as an absurd injustice.

By insisting on perfect-looking produce, customers also cheat themselves of taste and variety. Apple breeders used to select specifically for russeting because it was associated with longer shelf life. That's how we got Hudson's Golden Gem, a delicious variety. But you'll never find a Gem in a standard grocery store today, precisely because of that russeting. We've decided that apples should be shiny, not rough; large, not small; and red or green, but definitely not brown; so now what we find in stores are piles of uniform Red Delicious apples with latex-like skin, mealy flesh and no complexity of flavour.

Consumers can embrace broader aesthetic standards. Celebrate the unblemished apple that nature is capable of producing. But don't neglect their equally nutritious, no less wondrous, slightly unconventional brethren.

The Washington Post