Rotten on the inside

I have always been taken aback by how supermarket produce can look so perfectly uniform. We have a moderately well-kept veggie patch at home, and despite some serious effort I don’t think we’ve ever managed to grow a straight carrot, an inoffensive looking tomato or an un-scabby apple. So I was disturbed, though not entirely surprised when I heard of the concept of “off-spec” produce. This is where the supermarket chains apply minimum standards to purely cosmetic features of the fruit and veg they sell. For instance, oranges must not have green patches despite it being a natural reaction to sun-exposure, potatoes must be within a 15% size variation and pears must be noticeably pear-shaped. While all of this may seem harmless if a bit bizarre, it is actually causing an unseen nightmare for producers and unnecessary price-hikes for consumers.

Estimates from OzHarvest are that up to 40% of all Australian fresh produce is discarded or ploughed into the ground, mostly as a result from the supermarkets’ cosmetic specifications. More than half of all mangoes grown in Australia are discarded, while during last year’s banana shortage close to 100,000 tons of ripe fruit were rejected for not being “on-spec” despite the price reaching over $16 per kilo.

The Riverina region of NSW, which has for once had a good growing season, is now perversely seeing tens of thousands of tons of “too big” pumpkins, every male (seeded) watermelon and sun-greened citrus being ploughed back into the ground because it is cheaper than harvesting them when they can’t be sold. The farmers who have invested in planting and tending these crops will make a loss despite having grown perfectly good food. This is especially unfair when the sorts of disqualifying features are typically unavoidable in the course of growing food in a natural environment. Sunspots on fruit, russet patches on apples and insufficiently brown peel on onions (which we remove anyway) cannot effectively be reduced by changing farming practices, so farmers are forced to accept these losses. None of this produce is any less edible; it simply doesn’t live up to the visual expectations enforced by Coles and Woolworths.

A further implication of the supermarkets’ choosiness is that the raw price of food is pushed up by the need to cover the cost of the rejected produce. Consumers are forced to accept higher prices because they can’t easily opt out of the supermarket duopoly. This system is especially unfair when hundreds of thousands of low income families in Australia, let alone in our developing neighbours, are unable to afford fresh produce. To some degree this explains why poor nutrition is most prevalent amongst Australia’s least well off: it’s just cheaper to eat badly.

Finally, in the quest for more consistently “on-spec” produce farmers are heavily incentivised to use more pesticides in spite of progressively diminishing benefits. On top of the negative impact these chemicals have on non-agricultural land and waterways, they result in higher production costs and higher sale prices, further feeding the cycle of cost increases for consumers.

The supermarkets’ response to criticism of their specifications policy is that consumers asked for it by rejecting the type of produce that they now screen. While this is a valid point, the more sustainable response is to close the expectation gap between what people have been conditioned to expect of a pear/pumpkin/potato and what is simply the natural variation within fresh produce. Educating city-dwelling consumers, who probably have never even seen “off-spec” fruit, that green oranges are still ripe and that pears aren’t necessarily pear shaped will ultimately lead to the more consistent availability of fresh produce, lower prices and a less wasteful approach to food supply in Australia.