The Case for Imperfect Produce

The Ugly Duckling of Agriculture

I used to be that person at the grocery store who looked at every apple, pear, and banana for blemishes or dents. I’m not proud of it, but I can’t say I really enjoy the feeling of biting into a squishy, bruised piece of fruit. And I know I’m not the only one.

I’m also the person who doesn’t drive a car, doesn’t buy bottled water, and doesn’t leave the lights on or the water running for the express purpose of limiting my individual impact on the environment.

While these two statements may not appear contradictory at first blush, consider the following:

  • Examinations of current emissions show that global food systems account for one third of all human greenhouse gas emissions (Nature News, n.d.)
  • Moreover, one third of the food produced globally, in the same sector, is wasted (Royte, 2014).
  • Fruits and vegetables are wasted more than any other food group (See Figure 1). In fact, $15 billion worth of produce is wasted at market every year. For a striking visual, that waste is equal to one in every seven trucks of fresh produce that goes to market (Gunders, 2012)
  • In the U.S. alone, agriculture is responsible for 9% of emissions and has increased its emissions 17% since 1990 (US EPA, n.d.)
US annual avoidable food waste in 2009 as percentage of production. Source: CleanMetrics

US annual avoidable food waste in 2009 as percentage of production. Source: CleanMetrics

Farm to… floor?

You might assume that most of the greenhouse gas emissions in produce attributable to humans come from transportation of that food – and you’d be partially right. But the truth is, only a fraction of the stuff even makes it onto the trucks that take it to the store. Producers select which items make the cut by following the USDA grading standards, which specify the size, shape, and color that fruits and vegetables should be when they’re shipped from the farm to the shelf. The rest is left to rot in the fields.

Now, the USDA’s guidelines are in no way binding (neither USDA nor any state agricultural department can enforce any adherence to produce grading standards, as there are currently no laws restricting sale or consumption of edible yet non-perfect produce (Gunders, 2012)), but they are incredibly detailed. Consider the description for an “Extra Fancy” apple below:

“U.S. Extra Fancy” consists of apples of one variety which are mature but not overripe, clean, fairly well formed, free from decay, internal browning, internal breakdown, soft scald, scab, freezing injury, visible water core, and broken skins. The apples are also free from injury caused by bruises, brown surface discoloration, smooth net-like russeting, sunburn or sprayburn, limb rubs, hail, drought spots, scars, disease, insects, or other means. The apples are free from damage caused by bitter pit or Jonathan spot and by smooth solid, slightly rough or rough russeting, or stem or calyx cracks, as well as damage by invisible water core after January 31st of the year following the year of production except for the Fuji variety of apples.

 That is quite a mouthful to describe a round, red fruit. In the current system, the rankings given to produce items “are based primarily on external appearance” and typically run from “Extra Fancy” to “U.S. No. 2”, going from highest to lowest grade (Choice Plus, 1996). It is up to evaluators to determine the “grade” of the fruit or vegetable, and in some cases a single non-perfect item on a pallet can cause the entire pallet to be thrown away.

You are what you eat – and what you don’t

In some way, the massive waste of produce in the fields and on the shelf was my fault: people like me go to the grocery store and only pick out the most perfect-looking pieces. As a result, retailer “know-how” posits that U.S. consumers are only willing to consume aesthetically perfect produce – and so that’s all they bring to market.

According to various studies, though, the three most important product attributes to United States consumers are health (nutrition), value and sensory characteristics (visual looks as well as firmness, ripeness and smell) (Moser et. al, 2011). In fact, The Packer (2002) reports that 87% of U.S. respondents identified taste as the primary factor considered in the purchase of fresh produce. Despite slight differences in research, it is widely agreed upon that the economic factors such as household income, product price, and prices of other products, seem to influence consumer purchases much more than appearance (Chikkamath et al., 2012).

In short, there’s a mismatch between what they think we’ll buy and what we’ll actually buy – and it results in tons of greenhouse gases reaching the atmosphere every year.

The early bird gets the worm

Several smart people have already noticed this problem and have acted to solve it. First launched in 2014 at the Intermarché supermarket chain in France, Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables seeks to (a) educate and sell customers on the consumability of aesthetically non-perfect produce via a widespread marketing campaign, and (b) eventually lower the impact of food waste on global carbon emissions and climate change. Imperfect Produce, a primarily marketing campaign based in California and run on a much smaller scale, aims to have the same impact in the U.S. Both are currently too small scale to have any noticeable impact on the environment, but they’re certainly moving us in the right direction.

For there to be real impact at scale, we as consumers must demand that this stuff makes it onto supermarket shelves and into our kitchens. So the next time you’re browsing through the Galas and MacIntoshes, give a thought for the environment – and grab one with a couple of bruises.


About the Author

Sarah Millar is an Associate at City Light Capital, where she focuses on early stage investments in education, energy, environment, and safety and security. She has an MBA from The Wharton School and a MA in International Studies from The Lauder Institute with a concentration in Spanish and Latin America, and holds a BA from Trinity College, where she double majored in Spanish and International Relations.


References

Chikkamath, M., Atteri, B.R., Srivastave, S.V., Roy, S. (2012). Factors influencing consumer behaviors for vegetable purchase. Vegetable Science, 39(1), 35-39.

Choice plus: a reference guide to foods and ingredients. Helping you make informed decisions as you purchase food for school meals. (1996).  United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Consumer Service. FCS-297.

Gilbert, N. (2012). One-third of our greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. Nature online.

Gunders, D. (2012). Wasted: how America is losing up to 40 percent of its food from farm to fork to landfill. NRDC Issue Paper.

Moser, R. , Raffaelli, R. and Thilmany-McFadden, T. (2011) Consumer preferences for fruits and vegetables with credence-based attributes: a review. International Food and Agribusiness Management Review, 14(2).

The Azores. (2015). Les legumes moches case study by the azores.