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30th Aug 2018

In our hugely rich and over-provisioned society, it really is silly to start talking about food shortages, and yet the headlines this week have been full of largely inaccurate claims that this year’s heatwave is going to lead to great swathes of emptiness on our supermarket shelves, with frozen peas in short supply and even sausages and bacon hard to come by.

This is nonsense of course: whilst it is true that the hot summer has led to a smaller harvest in general, there will be plenty to go round.  The main effect consumers will see is a slight increase in the cost of food, a natural effect of sustained demand meeting slightly suppressed supply.

The effect of one year’s below-average harvest is far outweighed by the amount of perfectly good food we simply throw away. 

Last week a study by the University of Edinburgh claimed that more than a third of fruit and vegetables grown in Europe are wasted simply because they look a bit wonky, and therefore don’t meet the supermarkets’ quality standards.  In the UK alone that amounts to 4.5 million tonnes of completely edible produce binned for purely aesthetic reasons.

It is easy to blame the supermarkets for this, but in fact we are all responsible.  When supermarkets put a mixture of ‘perfect’ and wonky vegetables on the shelf, we will pick the nice and straight-looking ones, and refuse to buy anything that doesn’t look like it belongs in the pages of a design magazine.  Small wonder that supermarkets apply the same filter when buying from our farmers.

In the end supermarkets will only change their behaviour if we, the consumers, change ours.  We are starting to see this with the introduction of Morrisons’ ‘wonky fruit and veg’ initiative, which is to be applauded. 

They are doing this because they have realised the growing concern about food waste at a time when too many people are relying on food banks to feed their families.  It is not an altruistic move – Morrisons sees a competitive advantage in taking the moral high ground.  We shouldn’t condemn them for this; they are a business, and can only respond to their customers’ changing demands.

So if we are to reduce this obscene level of waste, it is down to us consumers to force through change.  If we all undertake to make a few small changes, we can force the supermarkets’ hands, and make enough inroads into our nation’s food waste problem to completely negate the effects of this year’s sun-depleted harvest.

First and foremost, we have to make a proactive effort to buy wonky fruit and vegetables.  Let’s face it, in most cases you are going to chop them up anyway; when you are putting pieces of carrot into a stew, it really doesn’t matter whether the original carrot was perfectly straight.  And often you will find that slightly less-than-perfect-looking produce is cheaper, so it really is worthwhile.

Secondly, we need to start planning our meals better so that we only buy what we are going to eat.  Studies have shown that a huge proportion of the UK’s food waste consists of stuff we buy and then leave to rot in our fridges.  So it’s pretty obvious that we should only buy what we need – it just takes a little thinking ahead.

Linked to that is refusing to buy pre-packaged bags of fruit and vegetables, which almost never come in exactly the size you need.  If your supermarket doesn’t sell vegetables loose, you can either indulge in a little guerrilla consumerism and rip open the packet and just take what you need to the till (you’d be surprised how well this works), or else shop somewhere which allows you to buy your produce loose, such as Norwich’s fabulous market.

Finally, we all have to learn to love left-overs.  We have stopped regarding making meals from whatever is in the fridge as good sense and started to view it as either too much hassle or somehow beneath us.  Yes, it takes a bit more effort, but it saves both food waste and money, so what is not to like?

When ten per cent of the world’s population is starving, and when even in the UK there are too many people who can’t afford to feed their families, it is obscene that we waste so much of the food we produce.  Learning to love wonky fruit and veg is a great first step towards tackling the issue, and it’s something which we can all do.

This article was first published in the Norwich Evening News and the Eastern Daily Press.