10 June 2019, 09:23 AM
  • Reducing food waste is a noble cause, says Jessica Brown, but to what extent does wonky food help or hinder the industry?
The controversy of wonky food

Food waste is one of biggest problems facing humans today, and is a huge contributor to carbon emissions. After it leaves farms, we throw away around 10 million tonnes of food and drink every year, seven million of which could be avoided. In the UK, households account for more than two thirds of this waste, while commercial and industrial businesses are responsible for just under a third. One solution that has the potential to not only reduce food waste but tackle the attitudes exacerbating it, is retailers big and small selling ‘wonky’ fruits and vegetables at a reduced price. Food that would have previously never seen the light of day is now being sold to customers at a reduced rate, and can alleviate some of the pressures people, and retailers, face to lower their carbon footprint.

Guy Singh-Watson, founder of retailer Riverford, which sells fruit and vegetables with broader specifications than supermarkets, says that increased demand for wonky food can be a force for good because it challenges the expectations consumers have of cosmetic perfection in their fruit and vegetables. Singh-Watson argues the work that currently goes into being so efficient at meeting supermarket specifications is detrimental to the environment, and farmers come under pressure to produce food within fine specifications, meaning the soil has to be perfect and the crops should have a predicable availability of nutrients. “Farmers are told they have to be more productive, which means using more pesticides, fertilisers and land that would’ve otherwise been space for wildlife,” he says. “This means adding way more fertiliser than required. Avoiding the risk of something falling out of specifications is a major driver of pest usage. Uniformity doesn’t exist in nature.”

“It’s a misconception that there’s loads of wonky vegetables piled up and left to rot”
But being so good at meeting these specifications means there isn’t always a lot of food waste in the first place, says Coral Russell, crop associations manager at the British Growers Association. “Producers are very experienced at working to supermarket specifications, and making sure their carrots are straight, broccoli and cauliflower is the right size, and that their harvest plans fit in with retailers’ plans for the year,” she says. “It’s a misconception that there’s loads of wonky vegetables piled up and left to rot. Producers don’t produce as much wonky vegetables as people think.”

However, research carried out by the food and environment charity Feedback found that fruit and vegetable farmers waste up to 37,000 tonnes of produce every year, which is around 16% of their crop. Customers assume the wonky food on retailers’ shelves would otherwise be thrown away – but misshapen fruit and vegetables can be used in numerous ways, including going into other food products, fed to animals, or used in anaerobic digestion. And when producers’ food does go to waste, this can be down to numerous reasons, including retailers’ late changes to product specifications or cancelling orders on short notice, Russell adds, which are separate issues that need addressing. She explains that increasing demand for wonky food presents a slight problem in that producers can’t be responsive beyond the food they naturally waste. “You can’t grow wonky vegetables on purpose,” she says.

“Any benefits to farmers are on a case-by-case basis”
But the wonky food they do pass onto supermarkets may provide some benefits to farmers. “If a farmer has a proportion of potatoes with minor scabs on them that they can sell, they will be better off because the production cost is passed onto the consumer,” says Singh-Watson. “The potatoes might be cheaper, but a quarter of what customers pay goes back to the farm.” But any potential profits from selling this produce onto retailers depends on the farmer’s circumstances, as they may have a contract for product that don’t meet specifications going to processing. “Any benefits to farmers are on a case-by-case basis, and it’s much more nuanced than big generalisations,” says Anna Simpson, policy adviser at the National Farmers’ Union.

To read the rest of the article, download the May issue of Speciality Food.