How Ugly Produce Got Its Sexy Back

Photo: National Resource Defense Council

This carrot is more than a pretty pair of legs. Step by step, it's leading the long march towards ending world hunger. Who knew a split root could unite two opposing truths? On one hand, about 11% of the global population is undernourished, meaning they can't acquire enough food to meet the daily minimum dietary requirements. On another, the world does in fact produce enough food to feed all of us. The problem is, one third — yes a third — of all food produced is never consumed. Embracing the billions of pounds of "ugly" produce that are thrown out every year is an essential piece of the solution.

Global hunger is a pressing issue — and it's only going to start pressing harder. To give one example, nearly half of all deaths in children under five is due to poor nutrition. Reducing child mortality is not only an instinctive priority, but a practical one. Increasing child survival actually helps stabilize the population. The better we feed today's population, the less mouths we'll have to feed in an ever resource-thinned future.

How do we reconcile this gaunt reality with the extravagant food waste that's happening? Of all the causes of food insecurity, including weather and political instability, food waste is least demanding problem to solve. So why does it happen?

If we want to point fingers, two hands aren't enough. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN gives a breakdown of where food is wasted: basically, everywhere. In developing countries, it tends to happen early on in production; this means harvesting techniques, inadequate storage facilities and other basic processes. The problem is more one of infrastructure than individual behaviours. In countries with well developed infrastructure, the consumers pick up the food waste slack. National Geographic published an account of what that looks like: anything from elaborate buffets at restaurants that are thrown out at the end of the day, to zucchinis that are rejected by grocers because they are too curvy, to us, the consumers, who over-buy and consequently toss out.

And that's where we come in. In the context of the developed world, our first step is to stop tossing out food on an individual level. This means not over-buying, and being aware that sell by dates refer to peak freshness and not food safety.

If we want to go even deeper and look at resource waste as a result of food waste, we'll see that throwing out meat is the worst offender. About 20% of all meat produced is thrown away, even though a cow needs to eat between 75 and 300 kg of food to produce just one kg of meat. When we throw out meat, we throw out all the grain, water and land that went into producing it, not to mention the gratuitous damage on the environment.

Once the behaviour of consumers changes, the decisions of grocers will too. It's scandalous to refuse perfectly edible food just for looking different. Are we really so fixated on outward appearances that we would reject a curvy zucchini, or our leggy carrot? We can't afford that kind of decadence.

It's a change of mindset that we need if we're going to change the system at every level to make it less wasteful. Food isn't trash. It shouldn't go straight to the compost either. And to be clear, it's not even just calories. Let's not forget that food is family, food is culture, food is love - and for some of us, love is food.

Thankfully, there are many initiatives trying to derail this farm-to-bin trajectory. Al Jazeera tells this story about a UK-based group called "The Real Junk Food Project" that accepts donations of food headed for disposal from supermarkets, restaurants and food banks, and cooks up meals offered by-donation in their various cafes. The project made $142,000 in its first year, helping it expand and pay volunteers.

If that sounds about right, you don't have to look far for something similar here in Vancouver. UBC Sprouts' Community Eats has a very similar system. It accepts donations of food destined for disposal from local grocers like Van-Whole Produce and Terra Breads — and with the help of volunteers cooks up vegetarian meals that are offered by-donation every Friday. For some, this is a weekly ritual; for others, UBC's best kept secret.

Hunger is a global issue. And so is stopping it. As we totter on the brink of tremendous changes in our climate we can't forget the other changes that will come with it — agriculture being an elephant not just in the room, but glaring us in the face, and waiting to play its cards.

It's the things each of us do, how we think, that affect how eventually we'll shape the future. It's time to realize that very piece of food, regardless the number of legs or curves or spots, was produced with the same sun, soil and care. It's time, finally, for produce like our unsuspecting headliner to escape what many say is its destiny, and get its sexy back.

Astghik Hairapetian

Astghik is a fourth year International Relations and Spanish student at the University of British Columbia.

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