Anna Lee is a PhD student in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford University.
You can always tell when I’ve been munching from a bowl of tortilla chips because the only ones left are the perfect ones: all three corners intact, no folded edges, no giant air bubbles. The broken chips and burnt bits and crumbs usually lurking at the bottom of the bowl are gone. I ate them.
I like to eat the weird ones, whether it’s chips 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 that 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, where we ate them with (or made them into) relish.
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 Organization of the United Nations estimates that high cosmetic standards in the retail industry exclude 20 to 40 percent of fresh produce from the market. Sometimes farmers can sell those unwanteds to processors making jam or cider or pickles, but as those systems rely increasingly on mechanization, they become less flexible when it comes to shape and size. Tons of food — 800 to 900 million tons globally each year, the weight of 9,000 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers — 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 manifestations of misguided normative ideas about what produce should look like. Cucumbers should be straight, cauliflower florets should be tightly held, and rhubarb stalks should be ruby red. If not, retailers tell farmers, consumers won’t buy them.
I worked on a second farm that sent much more produce to the compost pile. Beet butts, the ones that have 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 recognize that they’re at the whim of nature, and they plan accordingly, sowing extra seed with the assumption that pests, diseases or weather will take out some of the crop. That’s part of life. 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 colored, 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, or surveyed a field dotted with winter squash that we’d had to leave behind because the vegetables had been nibbled by bugs or were too small. 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. Plant an extra row for the bugs, or one for the gophers, or one for the drought, sure — but an extra row for narrow-mindedness?
This system hurts more than the wallets and feelings of farmers — it’s a tremendous waste of resources. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that global food wastage, about half of which occurs during production and post-harvest handling and storage, was responsible for 3.6 billion tons of CO2 equivalent emissions in 2007, the most recent year for which data is available; that’s more CO2 than Brazil, Japan and Australia together emitted in 2011. Wasted food also takes 250 cubic kilometers of water to produce every year, which is 38 times the amount used by all households in the United States combined.
By insisting on perfect-looking produce, customers also cheat themselves of taste and variety. Apple breeders used to select specifically for russetting because it was associated with longer shelf life. That’s how we got Hudson’s Golden Gem, a delicious variety that’s a favorite among my farmer friends. But you’ll never find a Gem in a standard grocery store today, precisely because of that russetting. 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 flavor. Customers are missing out on the pleasures of a russetted apple: the coarse texture against the tongue and the concentrated flavor of the dense flesh that accompanies it.
Consumers waste plenty of food after the point of purchase, and we can change our habits to curb that — by planning our grocery trips better; by ignoring “best by” dates, which indicate nothing about the safety of the food; by saving those overripe bananas for banana bread. But we can help cut waste upstream as well by embracing broader aesthetic standards. Choose the odd tomatoes and the gnarly parsnips. Buy the undersize beets and the broken almonds. Tell our grocers and our farmers that we’d rather have a slightly dented butternut squash than a hot, dry planet. Support businesses that help get the less-beautiful produce out of fields and onto consumers’ tables. (One French grocer, Intermarché, began buying “ugly” produce in 2014 and selling it at slightly reduced prices at several locations; the success prompted the company to expand the initiative to all of its stores.) We can stop our valuable food — every pound of which represents a sizable investment of energy, water, labor and money — from leaving the system without fulfilling is purpose.
By all means, eat the beautiful ones and celebrate the unblemished apple that nature is capable of producing. But don’t neglect their equally nutritious, no less wondrous, slightly unconventional brethren. When you stop to consider how much you’re really saving, you may even find they taste better.