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Embracing imperfect food

Written by  James O’Ehley
| in Landbou
| February 4, 2016

It is estimated that up to 30 percent of perfectly edible fruit and vegetable crops are rejected for sale even before being shipped to supermarkets, simply because they are too ‘ugly’.

When I was a small boy, my mother always told me to finish all the food on my plate because “there are kids starving in Ethiopia.” How a small boy eating his broccoli would help starving children elsewhere in Africa, remains a mystery to this day, but the truth is that the very notion of throwing food away while there are starving people elsewhere, offends people. And rightly so.

Therefore, the topic of food waste in South Africa is a hot-button issue. With this year’s devastating drought and possible food shortages, it is likely to become an even bigger issue – and one with unpleasant political undertones.

“A staggering third of all the food produced in South Africa is wasted, at a cost of R60-billion a year, equal to 2% of our gross domestic product,” Christine Olivier, First Deputy President of Numsa, wrote in an opinion piece in the Daily Maverick on 3 September 2015.

In the coming months, the issue of food waste is likely to become a political minefield and one that the farmer must navigate carefully and with great sensitivity. The idea that perfectly good food is discarded simply because it doesn’t look good enough, is an emotional one in a country where it is estimated that 12 million people go to bed hungry each night.

Sadly, the figures quoted above by Christine Olivier are accurate. According to Dr. Suzan Oelofse, a researcher with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), 9.04 million tonnes of food is wasted each year in South Africa. This amounts to almost 30% of all the food South Africa produces. Only about 4% of that food waste can be blamed on consumers.

“A lot of what is wasted is happening in the handling and storage phases, where vulnerable food sources like fruit and vegetables are damaged in the process, or during processing and packaging where aesthetically displeasing food with spots or marks is thrown out.”

“A lot of what is wasted is happening in the handling and storage phases, where vulnerable food sources like fruit and vegetables are damaged in the process, or during processing and packaging where aesthetically displeasing food with spots or marks is thrown out.”

According to Dr. Oelofse, the sources of food waste in South Africa are:
• Distribution (17%)
• Processing & packaging (27%)
• Post harvest handling & storage (26%)
• Agricultural production (26%)
• Consumers (4%)

Since the CSIR’s numbers are largely based on estimates, Plaastoe! decided to talk to Johan Terblanche, a well-known vegetable farmer in the Philippi area, to confirm their figures.

“I would actually say the correct figure is much higher than 30%,” Johan told us. “We throw away almost 40% of our entire crop before even shipping to the supermarkets.”

And by throwing away, you mean give away?
“No, it is used for compost, or fed to animals.”

Johan started out as a prison warden at Pollsmoor Prison like his father before him and only took up farming in 1991. Back then, he sold his home in Lakeside to buy three hectares of farming land in Philippi. Today he owns about 120 hectares and supplies vegetables such as cabbage, parsley, celery, turnips, spinach, and beetroot to most of the major retailers. He also supplies vegetables to local informal traders, but says that most of his money is made on the ‘formal’ market. Johan also handles his own packaging and ships directly to supermarkets.
He is quite outspoken on the ‘ugly’ food issue.

“The problem is unrealistically high standards set by the supermarkets.”

“The problem is unrealistically high standards set by the supermarkets. They only take the very best vegetables. If a leaf is torn on some lettuce, they won’t take it. If there is a yellow spot on a cauliflower, it is unacceptable. It must be perfectly white. We’ve had a case where an entire freight consignment was rejected because of a single worm discovered in some lettuce!”

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“The supermarkets want, let’s say, radishes or carrots all to be the same size for packaging purposes. If you know anything about growing vegetables, you would know that it is practically impossible to grow them all to exactly the same size. So you wind up throwing a lot of perfectly good vegetables away simply because they are the wrong size.”

“Another problem is that retailers insist on so-called ‘organic’ food and it isn’t always possible for a commercial farmer to profitably farm without using, let’s say, insecticides.” South Africa has no standards of its own when it comes to what qualifies as ‘organic,’ so some retailers insist on very strict European Union standards.

The real problem though, according to Johan, isn’t the supermarkets. It is the consumer.

“The public is simply too fussy nowadays. They have become accustomed to expect only the very best. The supermarkets simply want to give the consumers what they think they want, but the truth is that I think that many people will be happy to buy less perfect-looking food for lower prices.”

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We spoke off the record to some greengrocer managers. Most of them confessed to being unaware of the ‘ugly foods’ issue and seemed genuinely shocked by the idea that farmers discard perfectly edible food before it even reaches retailers and wholesalers.

“Would consumers be willing to buy so-called ugly foods if they were sold for cheaper?”

Would consumers be willing to buy so-called ugly foods if they were sold for cheaper? Yes, they all agree. “In the current economic climate consumers are always looking for a bargain,” one store manager tells us. “Of course they’ll buy it.”

Or, will they?
There is a classic early Simpsons TV episode in which Lisa tells Homer that she wants to become a vegetarian.
“Lisa, honey, are you saying you’re never going to eat any animal again? What about bacon?” he wants to know.
Lisa: “No.”
Homer: “Ham?”
Lisa: “No.”
Homer: “Pork chops?”
Lisa: “Dad! Those all come from the same animal!”
Homer: [chuckling] “Yeah, right, Lisa. A wonderful, magical animal.”

The joke is meant to poke fun at how dumb Homer is, but it is also a clever comment on how far people living in technologically complex and advanced societies are removed from the processes that produce their food. Unless you live on a farm or in a rural area, chances are that you won’t have to chop off a chicken’s head, pluck it, and cook it for your dinner tonight. Instead, you’ll most likely buy a chicken from a supermarket, which someone else has already gone to the trouble of killing and plucking for you.

“Instead, you’ll most likely buy a chicken from a supermarket, which someone else has already gone to the trouble of killing and plucking for you.”

The same goes for the fruit and vegetables we eat. Children growing up in cities and the suburbs will most likely form a mental picture of a carrot from the plastic and Styrofoam-packaged carrots their mother bought at Pick n Pay and not an actual carrot growing in the soil, with carrot leaves and dirt that the farmer has obligingly removed.

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Supermarkets are picking up on this attitude. Checking my own vegetable rack, I come across a packet of Woolworths Food red unions. Large friendly letters on the front declare that you should use it ‘raw in salads’. A bag of PnP potatoes helpfully states that it is ‘suitable for all kinds of cooking’. (I don’t know what else I was supposed to do with a bunch of potatoes!)
Food waste isn’t a uniquely South African problem though. According to an estimate by the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), about a third of all food is wasted globally. That’s about 1.3 billion tons per year! In the UK alone, about 90 000 tonnes of produce winds up in landfills.
A mental shift is clearly required, so some overseas retailers have launched various marketing campaigns to convince consumers to buy so-called ‘ugly’ foods. Of course, calling them something other than ‘ugly’ foods helps, which is why probably the most famous of these campaigns is the one led by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver in the UK, who calls them “wonky fruit and veg” instead.

Woolworths Australia (not related to our local Woolworths) has recently launched an ‘Odd Bunch’ campaign in which their stores will sell vegetables at a discount to consumers.

“It’s an opportunity for us to take more of the crop from our growers,” a Woolworths Australia representative told the media. “They’ll be able to sell more to us directly, leading to less waste.”

This follows the lead of Intermarché, the third largest supermarket chain in France, which had some success with their ‘Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables’ campaign. The campaign was devised by an advertising agency that produced posters to go alongside fruit and vegetable bins. The ‘ugly’ foods had their own aisle in fact! According to the company, the aim of the posters was to emphasize the ‘strange but lovable’ nature of such ‘ugly’ foods.

The project was deemed a success, and the Morrisons and Sainsbury’s supermarket chains in the UK have since quickly followed Intermarché’s example.

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In South Africa, the idea of selling ugly foods hasn’t exactly caught on with any of the major supermarket chains though.
In researching this article, we contacted Massmart, Pick n Pay, Shoprite, Spar SA, and Woolworths SA to ask what their position is on the issue. Only Mike Prentice, Spar’s marketing manager, responded in time for publication. Mike however dismissed the Jamie Oliver campaign as a “marketing gimmick” and said that the amounts of wasted misshaped fruits and vegetables are “negligible”.

“There are no piles of misshaped fruits, or tons of wasted food. Fruit and vegetables deemed too aesthetically unpleasing to be sold to customers are used by Spar in our quality cooked in-store meals.”

Dr. Suzan Oelofse of the CSIR is hardly surprised by Mr. Prentice’s response. “I can totally understand this comment, because the ugly food is likely to be discarded during the packaging stages before it reaches the supermarket.”

So what can farmers do to improve the situation?
Raise awareness. If you experience the same problems as Johan, then maybe taking up the issue with your contacts in the major supermarket chains is a good idea. Many people in the industry seem blissfully unaware of the ugly foods issue. There is also an online campaign to put social pressure on the major South African supermarket chains at: www.endfoodwaste.org/south-africa.html

“Supermarkets must be convinced that it is in their own interest to market and sell ‘ugly’ foods to the public at a discount.”

Supermarkets must be convinced that it is in their own interest to market and sell ‘ugly’ foods to the public at a discount. This shouldn’t be a difficult task, with domestic food prices set to skyrocket by over 50% in the coming months (according to some experts).

Another solution would be to contact a charity and talk to them about possibly fetching ugly foods from your farm and distributing it to the less fortunate. However, be aware of legislation in this regard. Many farmers are wary of supplying food to charities should anyone get sick from eating the food in question, and possibly suing them. Collecting such food from rural farms can also be an expensive process for charities that are too far away.

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One such organization to contact is Foodbank South Africa. Mohamed Kajee, their managing director, claims that they save about 6000 tonnes of food each year. This comes down to around 18 to 20 million meals!

What can farmers possibly do? The risk of losses is much higher for foods that must be transported over large distances, so it might be a good idea to look at streamlining transport practices and selling to markets that are closer.

Look into selling your produce to informal sellers. Johan Terblanche, for example, provides thousands of spinaches and cabbages to local informal traders daily.  

Some of these suggestions may help during the difficult period that lies ahead for all of us.