This post was written as a guest blog for DiscoverMonsanto.com. You can read the original post here.
The first club I joined as a child was the “Clean Plate Club.” My parents, who had made their “Clean Plate Pledge” after World War II in an effort to conserve food at home to help feed our starving European allies, introduced my sisters and me to the club. As a child, I never understood how the uneaten food on my plate could feed someone in another part of the world, but the message stuck with me. I now know that cleaning my plate was not the answer. Buying crooked carrots was.*
As a registered dietitian nutritionist who has spent my career promoting the importance of fruits and vegetables in a nutritious diet, I was shocked to learn that more than half of all fruits and vegetables grown are never eaten. The perishable nature of fresh produce can explain some of this waste, but the rejection of the “funny-looking” ones has become a major contributor to the problem. As a result, I’ve become committed to educating people about the challenges of food waste and what we can do to find solutions.
Food loss is an umbrella term used to describe all of the postharvest food that never gets consumed. Some of this loss is unavoidable due to spoilage or processing losses that occur before the food reaches the marketplace. Food waste is a component of food loss. It represents edible food discarded by growers, retailers and consumers that is avoidable. This includes everything from leaving crops in the field due to their odd appearance to letting carefully selected food rot in our refrigerators after we buy it.
If you shop at a farmer’s market or have your own vegetable garden or fruit tree, you know that all apples are not the same diameter and all zucchini are not the same length. Have you ever wondered why you don’t see that much variety in supermarket produce aisles? It’s a chicken or the egg conundrum.
Since the beginning of food commerce, every transaction between a produce vendor and his or her customers has been a closely scrutinized exchange. Shoppers have always felt the need to hold, squeeze and smell the peaches to find the best of the bunch. Sellers have vouched for the sweetness of their fruit by offering a slice to taste and a hint for making the perfect pie. This exchange has allowed buyers to gain trust in their produce vendors (if the results were favorable) and the seller to secure a repeat customer.
I know how valuable this relationship is whenever I buy food in an international market. Shoppers with little knowledge of the best quality standards for selecting fruits and vegetables and no attentive vendor to help them with their selection resort to choosing the best-looking items in the bin. When retailers are left with “unaesthetic” pieces they cannot sell, they stop accepting them in their orders. Farmers left with these “misfits” must find a processor willing to pay enough for them to cover the cost of harvesting and transporting them, or simply plow them under.
The produce industry now uses specifications for many crops based on size, color and weight – not what is edible. These specifications not only appeal to the visual cues consumers are using to make a purchase, they also make it easier to pack melons, peppers or tomatoes into boxes that can be evenly stacked on pallets and loaded onto trains, trucks or planes for transport. And once those boxes are in warehouses, their uniform counts and weights expedite the processing of store orders and the successful execution of this week’s schematic display in the produce aisle
As a result, shoppers have become accustomed to seeing only perfect produce, while perfectly edible, but “disfigured,” fruits and vegetables go to waste. After learning more about the food waste issue, I became committed to finding a solution. It came during a visit to the Monsanto research farm in Woodland, California.
While participating in an in-field breeder chat with cucumber breeder Neschit Shetty, Ph.D., I learned that selective breeding was used to grow cucumbers so they would be just the right size to fit into pickle jars. That was an “ah-ha” moment for me! If plant scientists can do that, I realized they can help farmers grow fruits and vegetables that meet the appearance standards consumers now expect in addition to ensuring they’ll taste great, contribute to a balanced diet and be easy to use in our time-stressed lives. These seed breeders can also breed crops to satisfy the environmental concerns of farmers and logistical requirements of retailers so fewer of them are left in the fields.
For me, that is a win-win solution to one piece of the food waste problem. Another is to use smaller dishes so I can keep my credentials in the Clean Plate Club without eating more than I need!
*The popular baby carrots found on every crudité tray are nothing more than “misshapen” carrots that were cut into bite-sized pieces. This was the brainchild of an innovative carrot farmer who wasn’t able to sell his crooked and oversized carrots so decided to have them cut into a smaller size and shape instead of plowing them under. It turned out to be a very profitable idea since consumers are willing to pay more than double for these whittled carrots than the bigger ones they must cut themselves.