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The wastage of Australia's produce because it is labeled 'Too Ugly'!

The wastage of Australia's produce because it is labeled 'Too Ugly'!

May 20 2016

Do you want to know something really scary?

In Australia approximately 1/3 of all our fruit and vegetable production is wasted. Millions go hungry around the world and yet somehow it is still acceptable for an enormous proportion of our edible produce to end up unused. All I can think is, “What a colossal waste of everyone’s energy, time and money that is”. Inefficient systems are normally improved upon to reduce waste however somehow the Australian produce industry has been allowed to remain inefficient. The truth about produce (and anyone who has grown their own fruit and veggies will know this) is that a lot of it is odd shaped, a lot of it has superficial skin blemishes, a lot are ‘Ugly’, but this is 100% normal and when you cut into the produce it is perfectly edible. In nature nothing is perfect and symmetrical, just look at the BLOG's main photo with all the odd shaped marked tomatoes.

How are consumers and retailers to blame?

Did you know that most of Australia’s wasted produce occurs at the retail and consumer level (not at the farm level) because we buy with our eyes? We have to question what is going on in our society when the majority of consumers believe that a pretty piece of fruit must provide a more superior flavour and better nutrition over the ugly pieces. The truth is that nutrition and food quality is not determined by shape or skin finish. There is a gross lack of understanding about where food comes from, how it is produced and the reality of what produce should look like. If this wastage at consumer level is ever going to change there needs to be education about food provenance and farming so people learn how much effort, time and money goes into producing their food so they learn to value and appreciate it better. The lack of food and farm education these days means consumers have a warped perception of what ‘normal’ produce should look like; and the retailers know this and they use it to their advantage!

Retailers have conditioned us for years that ‘Glamour’ produce equals the best quality produce. They have conditioned consumers by only displaying the prettiest, shiniest and cleanest pieces of produce year after year after year.  Don’t be naïve though, the reason they want you to buy the ‘Glamour’ produce is because they think they can charge a premium for it and they do! Do you think the farmers are getting anywhere near what is charged in the retail shops? I suspect most people will feel sick when they learn how much the farmer gets compared to what is charged at stores. The price farmers get for their produce at the wholesale produce market is volatile and subject to factors such as current demand and seasonal availability, but it is heavily determined by big retailers who are the bulk buyers and aren’t willing to pay anything above rock bottom prices. You may not be aware but big retailers have their own farms and supply their own stores. When they have a surplus of produce they flood the market and anyone else who is unfortunate to have their produce being sold on the same day will get next to nothing for their produce.

Why is there waste at the farm level of ‘reject’ or ‘low grade’ produce?

At the farm level there is also wastage but the sad part about the wastage here is that it is forced wastage. When produce is picked it all goes through a grading/packing machine, to sort the first grade, second grade and rejects out and approximately 20% of produce is ‘Rejected’; mostly because of aesthetics. Farmers don’t control the grading system but they do have to abide by it otherwise the big retailers won’t purchase their ‘Ugly’ produce. The Rejects are either left to rot, are fed to the livestock or are turned into a value added product by a very small percentage of farmers (i.e. turned the ‘rejects’ into chutneys, liqueurs, veggie sticks etc.) to reduce the waste and improve their income. Value adding is not an easy thing to do for primary producers because it requires a significant investment in time and money on top of their primary production. Wastage also occurs when the market price is so low that farmers can't even break-even on their produce, so they are better to let their produce rot on the ground, be ploughed back in or given to the livestock. When you think of how much money, time and effort farmers have put into growing that produce you can understand how emotionally painful it is for them to watch their produce and money be wasted.

Farmers are hit with middle men and expenses at every stage from farm to the market. Everyday costs keep going up for farmers but the majority haven’t experienced any increase in the price for their produce to counteract these higher costs. What this means is that farmers Australia wide are being squeezed into bankruptcy and squeezed off their farms. You only have to look at the recent dairy crisis in Australia to see this, but this is actually happening across the majority of farm industries. Some of the high expenses for farmers include the cost to grow the produce (diesel, fertilisers, electricity, water, wages, farm mortgage repayments, heavy equipment and chemicals), the costs to pick and pack the produce (wages, electricity, boxes), and the cost to transport produce to capital cities to sell at the wholesale markets (truck transport, cold storage, agent fees who sell the produce). These aren’t just small costs like the expenses to run a household, but are expenses in the thousands to hundreds of thousands. It then takes about 4-6 weeks before farmers get paid for their produce but in the meantime farmers are still expected to be able to pay all their bills on time. By now you are probably starting to appreciate how it is possible that there are so many farmers struggling with high debt levels in Australia.

So what can we do to reduce the waste of Australia’s produce?

Buy direct from farmers so you enjoy the freshest, most affordable produce and you are helping the farmer to retain more profit. Buy the ‘ugly’ produce with its odd shape or marked skin. Ask a farmer if you can buy their ‘Rejects’ and turn them into value added products. To reduce waste there also needs to be greater consumer education about food provenance; where their food came from, how it was grown and what real produce looks like. Don’t forget that Agriculture is one of the five pillars of the Australian economy and without them we wouldn’t eat. Every time you grab a piece of ‘Glamor’ produce or throw food out, spare a thought for the farmer who grew that for you.