Wherever there’s spray-free produce there’s also an abundance of ugly produce…it’s a fact. Things often go sideways when you grow without pesticides and chemical fertilizers. A little nutrient imbalance in the soil, a few hungry bugs, and you’ve got a recipe for homely produce.
I’ve always tried to keep the ugly veggies for myself. Consumers are used to the picture-perfect produce found on grocery store shelves, not oddly shaped or bug-bitten goods. The problem with spray free growing is that the perfect looking produce makes up a very small part of what actually comes out of the ground. In order to bring perfect veggies to market, an awful lot more end up on the “we’ll eat what we can and give the pigs the rest” pile.
One of the main reasons I choose to grow spray free is my concern for the environment. Most other spray-free growers will say the same thing. That causes a bit of a conundrum, though. In order to grow without sprays and produce something consumers will buy, a LOT more land has to be planted so that the small amount of perfect produce resulting can meet demand. This means it takes more land to feed people, and that more land has to be cleared for agricultural use. That might still be better for the environment than dousing the earth in pesticides, but it’s definitely not a perfect solution.
In a report released by the US-based National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) it’s estimated that in the USA 52% of produce grown is discarded because stresses such as insects and drought, or damage during transport renders it “unsuitable” for sale. The same report cites examples of a tomato packing plant that discards 22,000 pounds of tomatoes every 40 minutes during the high production season, and a cucumber farmer who claims that 75% of what he culls is perfectly edible but deemed unsaleable for cosmetic reasons.
The answer? We as consumers need to adjust our expectations. Scientific studies have shown that various mechanisms of stress actually cause plants to produce enhanced levels of some of the disease-fighting nutrients and chemical components that make them good for us. In short, ugly vegetables may actually be much better for us than the pretty ones. As a devout foodie, I’ll be the first to admit that how things look on my plate is important. That said, once an ugly veggie is peeled, chopped, or otherwise prepped, it’s often no different to look at than the beauty queen sitting next to it. Beauty is skin deep, and that goes triple for vegetables!
It’s hard to change attitudes, but as farmers I think we have some responsibility to ease consumers away from the expectation of perfection. I’m not advocating the sale of rotten, diseased, or otherwise potentially dangerous goods. I AM suggesting that maybe it’s not so bad to put a holey cabbage or a 3-legged carrot on the market table or in a produce box. By educating consumers about the benefits of ugly produce we can cut down on waste and environmental degradation, increase our profit margin and the nutritional benefits of the food we sell, and hopefully steer more and more growers away from pumping pesticides and synthetic fertilizers into the earth. It’s time that ugly gets a little respect.
Today’s lunch? A homely salad, and regardless of how it looks I’m sure it will taste just great.
Interested in learning more about food waste and its effect on the environment, our health, and food security? Watch Wasted!, a fantastic documentary on the subject.