Eat the Ugly

Some people are always looking for a villain. There is Judas, Al Capone, Kim Jong-un, Monsanto and Walmart. For you, environmentally-aware, socially-conscious and fact-skeptic consumers, reconsider your hatred towards Walmart.

Last week, Walmart, America’s largest grocer became the first retailer to sell blemished apples from Washington state, under the brand “I’m Perfect”, as part of their larger pilot effort of selling ugly fruit and vegetables.

Ugly fruits and vegetables are the daily bread on the farm. However, this so-called cosmetically imperfect produce often ends up in landfills, just because of how it looks.

Global food waste is a big issue for environmental, humanitarian, cultural, economic, and public health reasons. It is so important that during the 2015 Climate Change Conference in Paris, the Obama administration and the UN pledged to cut avoidable food waste by half by 2030. By some accounts, around 4 billion tons of food are produced for human consumption around the world annually. Between 30 and 50 percent of that is wasted. Waste happens everywhere along the production chain and, interestingly, it is equally pervasive among developed and developing countries.

In developing countries, food waste can be mostly attributed to poorly developed infrastructure impeding the adequate storage of food or imposing delays to its arrival to the market place. An unnecessarily large amount of food, sometimes up to 40 percent of perishable produce, doesn’t make it to the market and ends up rotting in the fields, trucks or warehouses.

In contrast, food waste in industrialized economies and affluent communities around the world is mostly explained by consumer behavior and practices in both the retail sector and the hospitality industry.

Although one of the biggest sources of waste in industrialized economies is household waste, not all food waste is food that gets thrown away. Some of the food gets wasted before it even reaches the household. The fact that consumer preferences vary drastically with external factors like the weather also explain why much of fresh produce goes bad in the supermarket’s shelves. However, a larger reason is related to aesthetics.

In the US, losses vary from crop to crop, but it appears that up to 20 percent of harvested crops are rejected by retailers because they are not aesthetically appealing to the public. In other words, grocery stores and supermarkets know their customers won’t purchase produce that doesn’t have the “right” shape, color or size that cosmetic standards impose. Some estimate that about 60 million tons of produce worth about $160 billion are wasted by retailers and consumers every year. In general, Americans don’t eat ugly produce. That’s called discrimination based on looks—and really, it is unjustified.

Many of us in modern urbanized societies have grown up largely detached from agriculture and are largely unaware of what a real vegetable looks like when it’s just out of the ground. “Ugly” fruits and vegetables look a bit weird to you and me because we know nothing about agricultural production. But the truth is that they are perfectly edible, tasty and nutritious — as someone in a different context put it, every inch of them is perfect from the bottom to the top.

Food waste is a big deal, globally. It is not just about wasting food, it’s about wasting money, fueling a culture of mindless consumption, imposing psychological and sometimes moral distress on those concerned with global equality, and causing irreversible damage to the environment.

There are multiple layers to this onion, and multiple approaches to improve the situation. That a store of the size and outreach of Walmart has taken the initiative to bet against the public perception of beauty brings hope for those willing to jump on the bandwagon of tackling the problem of global food waste. Only you know your favorite villain, but this time, I think Walmart should get a pass.




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