The topic of world hunger is another entry in the long list of problems we are currently facing. Tackling it has been a priority for many governments and global organisations for a long time, yet we are still looking at a tremendous number of people not having a stable access to food. While this is an often cited theme for developing countries, the problem does not spare the developed countries either. Low income earners are left with sub-standard food and fail to reach their nutritional needs on a regular basis. This may often lead to health complications and further expenses. In turn, this raises a question – can the rich countries really help the rest of the world when their own people are not properly nourished? And why is it that despite all the advances in agriculture and above average living standards, some miss out on meals or are left with sub-standard food quality? There are several specific reasons behind it, but one which I will concentrate on is the obsession with ‘attractive food’.
Supermarkets around the globe are tasked with providing us with food that is fresh, nutritious, but also looks good. The last part is the result of lengthy marketing campaigns that slowly conditioned us to correlate the appearance of the food with its acceptability for consumption. The image of the food became yet another tool that makes up the arsenal of the marketing specialists. We don’t even notice anymore how identical and near perfect it all looks on the shelves. The demand for food to be attractive has led to norms being imposed on the farmers that are hard to match even in a good year. An apple must be of a certain size and shape, contain a specific colour balance, and if it does not match the requirements, it is unsellable and is often discarded. No funny shaped carrots will reach out plates.The less appealing brethren of the supermarket variety are just as good and nutritious, yet they never make it to our dinner tables. What happens to them is that those crops are either never harvested, or discarded all together. Consider the following: our American colleagues may be discarding an incredible 64% of their crops! A survey done by the Natural Resources Defenece Council in US established that between 1-30% of the harvest is simply left in place, 1-4% are left in the field after harvesting, a further 2-30% is removed during packing. One of the top five causes – product grading.
Granted, it is not always the looks of the food that stops it from making its way up the supply chain. Market price play a big role. However grading happens both during harvest and packaging stage, so it’s safe to say that looks make a substantial impact throughout. One of the French supermarket chains, Intermarché, has already attempted to reverse the trend by selling less appealing looking foods with a big discount. However, while its chain of 1474 stores around France is a good start, it is still a trend and not the norm.
Europe’s behaviour is no better, and impacts farmers at home as well as as abroad. Kenya actively exports its fresh produce to Europe, but according to FoodTank an average of 44.5% of what it grows for the that market is being discarded because it did not reach Europe’s cosmetic standards for food. In case of green beans, they are to be cut to an identical length before being sold. The leftover portion is a stream of waste that farmers did not want to create, are not paid for, but which required water and soil nonetheless.
Of course, some of the unsold crops and leftovers may be used to feed the local livestock, but the local markets are rarely able to absorb all of it. The rest is simply left to rot. It is a waste of resources that are scarce enough as it is and the pressure only grows further when dealing with ‘in-season’ vegetables, since the supply is at its peak, and corporate buyers can be even pickier. Kenya is only one example of what harm is being done by ‘beautifying’ the food. Plenty more can be sourced around Europe, including UK, and it is this behaviour that is pushing the prices of crucial foods – fruit and vegetables in particular – to all time high. It is cheaper to eat junk food than to create a good quality meal, and few question why. All while we are being picky, we are simultaneously driving to the brink of destruction farms at home and abroad.
Yes, our behaviour as fussy eaters has an impact on the income and nutrition levels around the globe. What could we do with all the extra food we refuse to see on the local supermarket shelves? Would the prices drop if we became less picky? Yes and yes. Farmers would be able to sell more of their products, which would improve their livelihoods. Corporate buyers would not have the leverage to impose unreasonable standards for looks. We would pay less for the products which are good for us and help everyone, including those in the lower income bracket, reach their ‘five-a-day’, strengthening their health and reducing the number of doctor visits. Neither time nor resources would be wasted on growing something that will never leave the farm or be used on it. No less important, the developing countries, which supply us with these goods, would make a better living, helping to alleviate the poverty and food shortage they are experiencing. All this would happen if you would just pick up and eat that funny looking apple.