Around 40 per cent of the fruit and vegetables farmers grow doesn’t make it to our shelves. Whether it’s a lump, an irregular shape, or a variation in colour or texture, they don’t conform to our large food retailers’ pernickety cosmetic requirements.
In 2015, celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver and Jimmy Doherty highlighted this food waste scandal, and last year the chairman of the government’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Neil Parish, took supermarkets to task for not selling enough ‘wonky veg’, the term now used to describe the four out of every 10 vegetables and fruit deemed sub-standard by retailers because they don’t fit their nitpicking technical specifications. ‘It’s ridiculous that perfectly good vegetables are wasted simply because they’re a funny shape. Knobbly carrots and parsnips don’t cook or taste any different,’ he says.
Supermarkets have responded, some more wholeheartedly than others, and are now selling a few limited lines of fruit and veg as ‘imperfect picks’, ‘perfectly imperfect’ or even ‘beautiful on the inside’, for 30-50 per cent less than the immaculately groomed norm that dominates their shelves.
It’s crazy that so many people have to use food banks handing out canned and packaged food when so much fresh produce is being wasted. Environmentally, it’s destructive, too, because significant energy and resources are poured into growing fruit and veg, only for them to rot in landfill where they give off climate-warming gas.
But beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder, and I have trouble with the ‘wonky’ tag because it implies that the uniform fruit and veg that supermarkets prefer represent the pick of the crop, while ‘wonky’ is second best. We’ve been encouraged to expect fruit and veg to look like clones without having much understanding of what growers have to do to achieve these beauty pageant results. Anyone who grows their own knows that they rarely look like supermarket specimens, but as dedicated allotment holders and gardeners frequently testify, they usually taste better.
Behind the scenes of large-scale, intensive horticulture, a number of techniques are used to deliver the produce supermarkets favour. These include using chemical growth regulators, pesticides that iron out most of the natural variation in the crop that would otherwise occur – russetting on apples is one example – and selecting modern seed varieties for their ability to produce visually uniform specimens that will have a long shelf-life in store, even if their flavour is lacklustre. It’s time for us to recalibrate our idea of what naturally grown produce really looks like. If we want to stop waste, promote biodiversity, and eat fruit and veg that’s cultivated for flavour, not looks, ‘wonky’ must become the new normal.
Wonky veg and freaky fruit schemes in the UK
- Wonky Veg Boxes delivers weekly/fortnightly veg boxes and fruit bags that you can customise to exclude what you don’t want.
- Morrisons’ Wonky Veg Box includes carrots, onions, potatoes, parsnips plus a minimum of three of the following: cabbage, cauliflower, swede, leeks, peppers.
- Riverford Organic trials and tests seeds to find the most flavoursome vegetable varieties. Its veg boxes are 100% organic and seasonal.
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Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.