How much is too much waste?

09/24/2013 02:59:00 PM
Tom Karst

$imgObj.altTextBlueberries that are moldy, black and bruised bananas, lettuce that time forgot in the recesses of the refrigerator; we all throw away produce, and probably more than we suspect.

Food waste is becoming a hot button issue, with organizations left and right suggesting how the waste can be curtailed.

A recent United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report estimated that nearly 50% fruits and vegetables produced worldwide are lost or wasted somewhere along the supply chain, from farm to consumer.

Among its recommendations, the paper urged producers to “harvest all that is grown, at the optimal time,” to invest in better storage technology and to compost/mulch unavoidable organic waste.

While investing in improved storage technology and mulching organic waste are seemingly sound ideas, the idea of some technocrat advising growers to “harvest all that is grown, at the optimal time” is laughable. Make no doubt, growers have a notion of how to harvest their crop, and that usually means maximizing their yield and picking their crop at its peak. However, practical considerations can sometimes mean leaving fruit that is sunburned or otherwise defective in the field rather than incurring packing charges.

 As for retailers, the FAO report suggests allowing consumers to customize the amount of food they buy, to expand the definition of acceptable food, too sell imperfect items at a discount and donate unsellable, edible food.

Again, these in the main do not seem especially objectionable goals. However, telling retailers to “expand the definition of acceptable food” is a foolish proposition. Why should retailers stock misshapen produce on their shelves - and pay the packing, handling and transportation costs from the farm - if consumers have never shown a particular propensity to pick up ugly produce?

In coverage in The Guardian, a story said Britain’s Soil Association calculates that in the United Kingdom, 20% to 40% of produce is rejected because it’s misshapen. Efforts to get U.K. retailers to carry ugly fruit haven’t been successful, so one business in England is envisioning “trendy shops selling exclusively misshapen fruit.”

That is not a way to get “ugly” produce to the masses, sad to say.

Speaking to the topic of expiration dates on perishable food, the Natural Resources Defense Council this week issued a paper called “The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America.”


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