The U.N. wants you to buy funny food.
‘Funny’ is their word. Let’s call it like we see it. We’re talking about ugly fruits and vegetables; the two-legged carrots, blotchy apples, crooked cucumbers, and lumpy lemons. They’re the culinary misfits that are culled by the farmer in the field, tossed out by the supermarket produce department, and if they make it far enough, passed over by consumers. The U.N. partnered with consumers, producers, and governments to launch Think.Eat.Save, a global campaign aimed at raising awareness of food waste issues and facilitating cooperation across society’s producing and consuming sectors.
Farmers plow under more than a fifth of their crops every year because they don’t meet marketing standards for their appearance, and retailers generate another 1.6 million tons of food waste. It’s estimated that one-third of the world’s food production goes to waste, and about half of that is for cosmetic reasons. The U.N. says it could feed 900 million of the world’s hungriest citizens with our cast-offs.
Market standards for appearance are often circumscribed with awe-inspiring precision. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s document for greenhouse-grown cucumbers goes on for 10 pages describing the allowable gradients of the curves for cucumbers that bend, bow, or taper toward the ends. Field-grown varieties are guided by a separate document. The color of a red apple is delineated in the following paragraph:
That an apple having color of a lighter shade of solid red or striped red than that considered as a good shade of red characteristic of the variety may be admitted to a grade, provided it has sufficient additional area covered so that the apple has as good an appearance as one with the minimum percentage of good red characteristic of the variety required for the grade. For the striped red varieties, the percentage stated refers to the area of the surface in which the stripes of a good shade of red characteristic of the variety shall predominate over stripes of lighter red, green, or yellow. However, an apple having color of a lighter shade than that considered as a good shade of red characteristic of the variety may be admitted to a grade, provided it has sufficient additional area covered so that the apple has as good an appearance as one with the minimum percentage of stripes of a good red characteristic of the variety required for the grade. Faded brown stripes shall not be considered as color.
The Federal Trade Commission sets additional standards of beauty for fruits and vegetables that are shipped across state lines, and there are separate benchmarks for imports.
The European Union has already loosened its notoriously arcane produce regulations (sample banana spec: The thickness of a transverse section of the fruit between the lateral faces and the middle, perpendicular to the longitudinal axis, must be at a minimum of 27mm). Britain’s Sainsbury’s supermarket further relaxed its own standards, putting forked parsnips and knobby apples on the shelves of its 1,000+ stores.
Here in the U.S. we waste nearly as much as we eat, tossing out 20 pounds of food each month for every man, woman, and child. We spend a billion dollars a year just to dispose of it. Unlike so many of the challenges we face, food waste doesn’t require a technical solution so much as a new mindset.