Imperfect produce and the war on waste
Kedron State High School’s Sam Jones has taken out the top spot for UNSW’s Bragg Writing Prize. Sam’s writing piece focuses on the war on waste and how rejecting imperfect produce is detrimental to our farmers, ourselves and our planet. Read below for Sam’s entry to discover the benefits of embracing imperfect produce.
It’s what’s on the inside that counts
Australian primary producers are forced to dump up to 60 per cent of the nation’s annual fresh fruit and vegetable crop simply because it is deemed not pretty enough. Australia, we have a problem.
We are taught not to judge a book by its cover. But the truth is we all do it every day when it comes to the fruit and vegetables we choose to buy and eat.
“Consumers shop with their eyes,” says Mary Ann Augustin, the CSIRO’s chief research scientist for Food and Agriculture. “They expect the fruits and vegetables to look really good, but if you grew the produce yourself in your garden at home you wouldn’t mind if it was a bit misshapen.”
This need for perfection in the produce Australians are willing to purchase is an unfortunate phenomenon independent greengrocer Neil Federer knows well. “We have many customers ask our opinion of what to buy, but even when I recommend the ugly produce there is some hesitation to buy it,” says Federer, who runs the Everything Good greengrocer in the foothills of the Glass House Mountains on the Sunshine Coast. And Federer doesn’t see that changing anytime soon, despite numerous high-profile campaigns trying to encourage Australians to buy ugly produce.
“Beautiful is best,” he says. “It’s simply a visual thing which is automatic in all of us. Consumers are conditioned to see beauty and this is exactly how people see the food they purchase.” Perhaps because shoppers have this automatic attraction to beauty, Australia’s major supermarket chains set extremely high standards for their produce.
The Woolworths cosmetic standards guide for bananas runs for a mind-boggling 11,464 words over 20 pages. Every Cavendish banana sold at Woolworths needs to – among an extensive list of other criteria – boast a “normal to bright bloom; be firm, not soft; have starchy flesh; be slightly arched, with a blunted butt end; have undamaged necks; and have no bruising, staining or scarring.”
It is little wonder then Australian primary producers are forced to dump up to 60 per cent of the nation’s annual fresh fruit and vegetable crop simply because it is deemed not pretty enough.
Australia, we have a problem.
And it’s a problem that’s only going to get worse – with climate change leading to more extreme weather events like hail storms or heatwaves damaging crops.
The CSIRO’s Dr Augustin says extreme weather events have been associated with climate change. “I’m not a climate change scientist, but any time you have an increase in temperatures it’s going to affect crops,” she says. Wasting food means you are also wasting the resources – including seeds, water, energy and fertilisers – that were used in growing that food
Fourth-generation farmer Stephen Moffat says he doesn’t believe in climate change. But the pineapples on his 40-hectare Glasshouse Mountains property have been affected this year because of an unusual series of summer heatwaves. “Forty per cent (of the pineapples) are affected,” he says. “This is far worse than I can remember.”
Exacerbating the situation is that demographers estimate Australia’s population will increase by four million people over the next decade, meaning by 2027 we will need 20 per cent more food. We already produce that much and more, but our nation’s dirty little secret is how much we waste because it’s too bumpy, lumpy, or misshapen.
Dr Augustin warns dumping fresh produce has a much greater impact than just wasted calories. “Wasting food means you are also wasting the resources – including seeds, water, energy, and fertilisers – that were used in growing that food,” Dr Augustin says. She is leading a team of Australian scientists who are using science and innovative technology to reduce fruit and vegetable waste by turning unwanted produce into nutrient-rich snacks and supplements.
“We are taught not to judge a book by it’s cover. But the truth is we all do it every day when it comes to the fruit and vegetables we choose to buy and eat.” – @giveuglyago
“We are using the edible parts of the unwanted vegetables and making them into things like veggie sticks and fermented foods,” she says. “For example, bananas that don’t meet supermarket specifications can be used to make banana flour.”
Michael Buckley is another Australian waging war on wasted produce. He has started a business using the science of freeze-drying to turn unwanted produce into nutrient-rich supplements. Foods that have been freeze-dried retain their natural chemical make-up, meaning the nutrients are not lost – while the shelf life increases from a few days to a few years.
Buckley’s purpose-built Freeze Dry Industries factory at Yandina on the Sunshine Coast sports massive vats that freeze, then dry, raw materials to remove water content, meaning he can freeze dry up to eight tonnes of fruit each week. His next idea is to build a similar, solar-powered setup inside a shipping container that can be trucked direct to the farms during the harvest to freeze-dry unwanted produce on-site.
“The ultimate sustainability setup is that a farmer has the option of selling off otherwise unsellable produce to create a whole new consumer range of long shelf-life, lightweight, easy to store, highly nutritious products and food,” he says. “To waste perfectly nutritious and delicious food is stunningly stupid.”
With our love affair with beautiful fruit showing no sign of ending, it’s technology such as this which will be crucial in ensuring a sustainable food supply for our nation. Ridiculous produce beauty standards mean Australian farmers are forced to throw away up to 60 per cent of fruit and vegetables grown in this country just because they are deemed not pretty enough.
Kedron State High School Year Seven student Sam Jones is passionate about spreading the word about food wastage. He first learnt of the sheer extremity of the situation by watching the ABC’s War on Waste (starring Craig Recaussel).
Want to learn more about imperfect produce and Sam’s sustainability journey? Follow him @giveuglyago on Instagram.
Author: Heather Catchpole
Heather co-founded Careers with STEM publisher Refraction Media. She loves storytelling, Asian food & dogs and has reported on science stories from live volcanoes and fossil digs