Ugly Produce

A recent report states that £19 billion worth of ugly produce is thrown away in the UK each year. This is a staggering statistic and may not be terribly accurate, even if this is an inflated figure by 50% it is still an awful lot of food being wasted.

So what is ugly produce? Mostly fruit and vegetables, the bulk of which is discarded by farmers and growers in the field during harvest operations or from the grading lines that much produce ends up going through before it gets to the distribution hub.

Over 80% of produce is sold via the multiples (supermarkets) and it is here that the greatest amount of food waste is generated. Ugly is a general description that can be anything such as produce damaged by harvesting machinery, damaged by insect/disease/animal attack, wrong shape, size or colour. Outgrades (produce that does not conform to the standards) can sometimes be more than half of the entire crop. Inevitably there will always be some produce deemed unfit for human consumption, primarily which due to insect/animal/disease attack, usually this is quite a small percentage of the crop.

For example this year our potato crop was especially good both in terms of its yield and its quality, we graded out around 10% in the field due to being too small or a small amount of damage, such as greening or wireworm attack. By industry standards this percentage of grade out would be considered very low, few conventional growers would have such small losses.

But that is not the end of the grading process, once the crop gets back to our packing shed (at this time of year they are coming from a field store of straw bales to protect them from frost), further grading takes place. We remove a further 5% for damage or rot that has taken place during the storage time. The longer we store them the higher the grade out becomes, to the point where it can be no longer worth sorting the crop out.

The labour/handling cost exceeds the value of the produce. Some of the grade outs we keep for seed to plant for the next season’s crop, this is a great advantage to us as we have found that our best crops come from our own seed supply. This makes good use of the smaller tubers that would usually be dumped.

Conventional growers use a chemical (Chlorpropham) sprout suppressant. This is used to stop the tubers trying to grow in store, as every spud from January onwards is pre-programmed by nature to start the growing process all over again. We of course cannot use such chemicals and have to either cold store the crop or have to remove the sprouts by hand and beyond a certain date the spuds loose too much moisture to be worth selling. So in general we end up losing around 20% of the entire crop that was grown in the field, this is considered a very low grade out, and remember some of that goes for seed, which reduces what we need to buy in to replant, keeping our carbon footprint low.

If we were to sell our crop to a third party such as a supermarket the situation with grade outs would change dramatically. For a start, the EU regulations in produce grading would come into force, we would have to grade to the official standards, this is quite strict. When we sell direct to the public, as we do with our box scheme or through the Veg Shed, then grading is entirely up to us. In theory we could put the entire crop out to our customers, just as it was as it came from the field. However we know that few of you would want to buy even at a lower price, because dearest Joe Public has been conditioned to believing that produce grows to an almost perfect standard.

Supermeerkats believe that they know what Joe Public wants, indeed we are hearing from them so often that “the consumer demands so and so”. Well I don’t know about you, but they have never once asked me what I want from them in terms of standards for fresh produce, so who are they asking about such things? Truth is that they never ask Joe Public what they want, they have made up their own mind as to what the standards of produce should be, so they take the EU regulations as a starting point and add their own interpretation on top of it. This gives them lots of things such as having beautiful produce to line their shelves with, convenience in that all the leeks/other veg will fit their available shelf space. It also means they can have all produce arriving at the stores in the same size containers that fit into the stores handling systems. Some certain colours look better under lights than other, so particular varieties of veg/fruit may be demanded. I could go on about what the supermeerkats like to dictate to their growers, but will refrain as I am supposed to be covering the subject of ugly produce and waste.

So, all these euroregs and supermeerkats grading standards add up to a whole lot of wasted crop, edible food going to waste. It is not unusual with some crops for this to exceed 50% of the harvest, this has to be paid for, so who pays? Two parties pay, the grower initially has to cover the cost of the reduced yield, the costs of growing a 10 tonnes crop are about the same growing a 5 tonne crop, but the latter will return only half the value. Then the consumer pays as well at the cash till as the supermeerkats need to cover their massive store and centralised distribution costs.

So, food waste is not really about chucking out inedible produce. It is about serving the needs of the eurocrats and the supermeerkats, so, dear reader, the more that you can buy locally and organic then the less gets thrown away.

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