The Misfits – Responsible consumption and production

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Counting Carrots – Photo: Nodigio
By Jespal Singh Sidhu | ENVIRONMENT |

In my earlier article I touched on unseen food waste/loss and the resources that are consumed and wasted when such food waste/loss occurs. I can safely say that all the produce and/or products that we consume come from a farm, or at least some component of it comes from a farm. Even a bottle of carbonated drink has sugar in it and this sugar was at some stage sugarcane in a plantation.

Does food loss occur at farms? For those of us that have experience growing our own fruits and vegetables we would have surely experienced “funny” or misshaped fruits and vegetables. Slightly blemished or bruised fruits and vegetables are also common. Yes, there are carrots that grow to have two or three “legs”, odd-shaped potatoes, double apples and many more misshaped vegetables and fruits. Lightly-bruised fruits and vegetables with some leaves torn or some black spots or too many “eyes” are part and parcel of what is produced at a farm. As home growers, we usually do not worry much about these vegetables and fruits as long as they are consumable.

At the onset, bruised and blemished fruits and vegetables are discarded or used as livestock feed at farms for fear that they may become rotten, or their quality may deteriorate during the transportation period thus causing other fruits and vegetables to turn bad. On the other hand, do we see misshaped fruits and vegetables at our markets, hypermarkets and supermarkets? The obvious answer is, NO! Have we wondered, why?

The answer is, these vegetables and fruits do not pass the stringent aesthetic tests that all retailers impose based on the look, size, colour and other criteria. What happens to these fruits and vegetables? Most of them are discarded at the farm itself and some end up as livestock feed. Imagine the amount of produce wasted. What about wasted resources? One can calculate the amount of resources that it took to grow these. Water, land, labour, fertilizers, pesticides, transportation, fuel and other intangible resources. All these resources are wasted all in the name of “eating with our eyes”. Is this sustainable farming? Is this responsible consumption and production?

One third of all the food that is produced yearly for human consumption, which is approximately 1.3 billion tonnes, ends up as food loss before it even reaches the consumer’s dining table.

What is the impact of this food loss? Is it just financial? What is its effect on our earth? Such non- sustainable farming has a devastating effect on the environment. Water, already a scarce resource in some parts of the world, is wasted; wasteful use of chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides; fuel used for transportation is wasted and it creates more rotting food in our landfills which in turn creates more methane – one of the most harmful greenhouse gases that contributes to climate change.

Movements such as Wonky Vegetables in UK and France’s third largest supermarket chain Intermarche “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables” campaign is leading the way to address this food loss. Most other supermarket and hypermarket chains in Europe and in the US have already incorporated the sale of misshaped fruits and vegetables.

Let’s look at Asia, specifically Malaysia. Do we see misshaped fruits and vegetables at our markets, hypermarkets and supermarkets? At least I have not seen any.

Would it not be a good initiative for the farmers to sell these off cheaper to the wholesalers or to some of the hypermarket/supermarket chains that purchase directly from the farmers and hence these can be sold at a certain percentage cheaper to the consumer? What would the effect be on the farmers? Some farmers might think that this will then also push down the price of the so called “normal” fruits and vegetables. How is this so? I have spoken to some farmers in Rawang, Kuang and Kundang, and they said that the wholesalers will say that the cost to produce both “normal” and misshaped vegetables and fruits is the same and if the latter can be sold at a cheaper price then so can the former, and thus, their fear is a drop in their income due to unscrupulous middlemen. Hence, some of them said that the odd-shaped fruits end up as livestock feed, some are thrown away only to end up at the landfills, and some are ploughed back into the land.

Alternatively, a large scale farmer that targets to produce thirty tonnes of tomatoes per week would surely need to grow extra to compensate for the odd shaped ones that will be rejected. What is the percentage of these unwanted misshaped, damaged and blemished ones? What would happen to this misshaped ones? Livestock feed? Landfills? Ploughed back into the soil? What amounts of resources such as water, land, fertilizer, pesticides, fuel, energy both from diesel and human labour are wasted for this? Can these be
recovered? No!

Would it not benefit farmers all over the world if these misfits are both, purchased and sold, at a cheaper price? Would it not reduce the total amount of waste in the entire production chain? Would it not allow the farmer to plan the crop production and resource management more accurately without having to compensate for the odd-shaped ones?

I have seen studies by Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI), Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority (FAMA) and research papers on the amount of output of produce be it fruits, vegetables, livestock, crops, paddy, coffee, oil palm fruit and the list goes on. I have searched high and low for studies and /or research papers that specifically look into the amount of slightly blemished, slightly bruised and or odd-shaped fruits and vegetables that are discarded per year in Malaysia based on a sizable sample size of farms and the effects of this on economy and the environment, but could not find any. Maybe, I could be looking up the wrong tree. A good topic to do a doctorate research paper on, I wonder especially why not look at the sustainability and food security aspect?

On the other hand, for the purpose of making sauces, jams, juices, pickle, ketchup, and canning, I see no reason why these odd-shaped fruits and vegetables cannot be used. Are the food manufacturers, who produce the above, purchasing these misshaped fruits and vegetables and using them in their product?

Some basic research, which I have done, indicates that most food manufacturers who produce the above items, get their feedstock in semi-processed forms such as pulps, cut fruit or vegetable slices packed in huge containers to be further processed, raw juices for further processing, hence, they do not know if the odd-shaped fruits and vegetables are processed or discarded. Some manufacturers stated that they have stringent controls within their juicing and sauce plants. Feedstock that meets these stringent standards will be processed while those that do not will be discarded. Do these standards include odd-shaped and slightly bruised fruits and vegetables – was a question posed but no clear answer received.

We, the human race, discard approximately 1.3 billion tonnes of food produce a year. An alarming figure, indeed, and how many hungry stomachs can this produce feed? The answers are all on the internet. Imagine the associated resources that are loss. What we, endless consumers of this earth, need is a mechanism or a solution to channel some of this produce to those who really need it instead of it going to waste. We do see some efforts taken in Europe but what we need is a push from ground up, especially, in Malaysia where we have abundance of resources and the culture of wasting food is alarming.

Last week, I received two huge sacks at our composting collection site. Upon opening them, both were filled with fruit pulp and upon emptying the second sack onto the compost heap, I saw about ten to fifteen guava fruits, which were slightly brown on the top. However, upon closer examination of two to three fruits, only the skin had oxidised and the fruit was still firm and suitable for consumption. Sadly, these fruits were already on the compost pile and exposed to the microbes and fungi, hence, nothing could be done. This is an example of how we waste.

How do we inculcate the habit of consumers, especially in Malaysia, to not be bias towards purchasing odd-shaped and slightly blemished or bruised fruits and vegetables? Is it only when the above awareness is widespread will the retailers respond accordingly? Or is it when there is a supply of such produce on the shelves at cheaper prices or with additional points attached to their purchase or some sort of “carrot” factor will the Malaysian consumer change their preference?

I do not have the answers, but, I would like readers to share your thoughts as to how we can influence the food chain, be it the farmers, wholesalers, wet markets, hypermarkets, supermarkets – to incorporate these “misfits” into the food chain to reduce waste to ensure sustainable and responsible consumption and production.

#foodsecurity #responsibleconsumption #SDG2030 #SDG12

Jespal Singh Sidhu, a real estate negotiator and an avid gardener, produces compost on a commercial scale for farms, fruit orchards and home gardening enthusiasts. He is also a certified HRDF trainer and conducts trainings and seminars on sustainability, waste management, separation at source organic waste management and environmental related topics. He is available to guide Gurdwaras to reduce carbon footprint in line with the SDG agenda. He can be contacted at compost.sprout@gmail.com

 

RELATED STORY: 

Want not waste not – Responsible consumption and production (Asia Samachar, 11 Dec 2020)

Gurdwara food waste goes upcycle! Kuala Lumpur shows the way (Asia Samachar, 24 Nov 2020)

 

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