Even though one of the most important lessons we’re being taught as children is to embrace our flaws and to favor substance over appearance, the pursuit of perfection is as inherent to human nature as the desire to survive or the ability to evolve. But when this pursuit alienates us from all that is natural, it becomes unhealthy and destructive.
Fueled by competitiveness and speculated by retailers, our obsession with good-looking fruits and vegetables has grown into a $2.6 trillion global issue, according to United Nations.
When it comes to US, the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that, depending on the crop, up to 35% of the farm grown Food is wasted before entering the market, as a result of the strict selection process. Basically, approximately six billion pounds of fruits and vegetables, with a market value of roughly $165 billion, are thrown away simply because they are labeled “ugly”. But this is just the beginning: from selection and transportation to processing, refrigeration and post-purchase, food is being wasted in every single step of the supply chain (source), and with it, so are other important resources such as water, fertilizer, and fuel.
Our aversion towards misshapen, blemished or discolored fruits and vegetables doesn’t only affect the farmers. When the incredible amounts of food sent to landfills start rotting, they emit methane, a very potent greenhouse gas harmful to the environment.
There’s also a matter of taste involved: since customers prefer tomatoes that are uniform in color, tomato growers have been purposely perpetuating this trait through selective breeding. However, three years ago scientists have discovered that the mutation which gives tomatoes their uniform appearance also reduces the fruit’s production of sugar and other flavoury compounds, altering its taste in the process.
A recently-launched California startup wants to change all this. Since “cosmetically challenged” fruits and vegetables taste exactly the same as their good-looking counterparts, the crowd-founded company called Imperfect works with growers and supply chains to sell the food that would otherwise be thrown away or fed to animals. This way, farmers are able to increase their revenue, customers get produce that is 30% cheaper, and each pound of fruits and vegetables purchased saves 10 to 35 gallons of water.
Beginning this summer, Imperfect started selling boxes of wonky-looking fruits and vegetables in San Francisco area and they also partnered with the high-end chain Raley’s, which launched a pilot program called “Real Good” to promote a more sustainable approach towards fresh food.
Ben Simon and Ben Chesler, Imperfect’s founders, are not at their first attempt to reduce food waste. In fact, their new venture was born from a 2011 initiative named the Food Recovery Network:
It all started when we launched the Food Recovery Network in 2011 to recover leftover food from campus dining halls. After 700,000 pounds of food recovered and 150 college campuses, we began looking for ways to have an even bigger impact. And we found it – on farms, where 20% of the produce grown never makes it to a human mouth, in large part because it is simply the wrong shape, size, or color. So we came up with the idea to reduce this food waste while making produce more affordable for all families. We’ve teamed up on this project with Ron Clark, who has worked for the California Association of Food Banks for the last 15 years sourcing ugly produce to keep it from going to waste.
And fortunately, there’s an increasing number of people and companies who are willing to tackle this issue: earlier this year, in Massachusetts, former Trader Joe’s president Doug Rauch opened Daily Table, a non-profit grocery store which sells foods that passed their sell-by date but are still perfectly safe to eat. And then there’s EndFoodWaste.org which promotes ugly fruits and vegetables on a global scale through social media campaigns and targeted petitions. They are also working on two directories: one that lists ugly fruits and vegetables sellers across the world and a global database of food rescue groups.
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