In praise of wonky vegetables

Supermarkets are not necessarily the main villains of the piece: they are giving customers what they want

Sunday 07 December 2014 01:00

We are all for the festive season, with the youthful enthusiasm of the youngest Sunday newspaper, and in particular we celebrate the extraordinary variety of good food that is available to most British consumers and restaurant-goers today.

As we enter the season of feasting, however, we should pause not just to acknowledge the good fortune enjoyed by most people in Britain, but to consider some of its downsides.

One is that a minority of people in our country find it hard to afford everyday food, let alone anything special, as the spread of food banks suggests. The other is the level of food waste. As we have reported before, it is possible that as much as one third of all food produced or sold in Britain goes to waste.

It is one of the best things about the rise of "gleaning", therefore, that it connects these two negatives to make a positive. Gleaning is the ancient practice of scavenging food that farmers cannot sell and, in its modern form at least, giving it to people in need. As we report today, the Gleaning Network UK organises volunteers to gather food that farmers cannot sell to supermarkets and distribute it to school breakfast clubs, women's refuges and luncheon clubs for the elderly.

This is a welcome initiative that rather neatly and directly links people who have too much food and those who have too little, but it also draws attention to the deeper problems of food waste. As Martin Bowman, the network's co-ordinator, told The Independent on Sunday, "It's undeniable that we need a shift in consumer attitudes to wonky fruit and veg."

The supermarkets' demands for perfection of appearance are largely responsible for the crops that are left – if the gleaners don't get them – to be ploughed back into the ground.

The supermarkets are not the only villains of the piece: they are giving their customers what they want. But supermarkets do also have a responsibility for shaping what their customers expect. Not to mention their responsibility for offers such as "buy one get one free" or "three for the price of two", which encourage people to buy more than they need.

Many local councils have become better at collecting separate food waste for composting and selling back to farmers, but it is also worth making better cooks of us all, educating us in how to use food with less waste.

Supermarkets are also significant players in the dysfunctional economics of the food business. For a long time, farmers have complained about the unfair power of large buyers, which has squeezed their margins. Again, this is partly because retailers are extremely efficient at passing on the demands of customers for lower prices. But the competition authorities ought to be more sensitive to evidence of the abuse of market power.

The revelation last week that Premier Foods, one of Britain's biggest food makers, was demanding payments from its suppliers if they wanted to keep their contracts was further proof that something is very wrong in the food market. Again, there seems to be an imbalance of power between large companies and small suppliers.

British consumers have become more sophisticated in their tastes in recent decades, which is undoubtedly a good thing. With that sophistication should come a better understanding of how food is produced, including animal welfare, and how to minimise the amount we throw away.

You do not have to go the full ethically-sourced, free-range, living-wage, local hog this Christmas. But let us all do our bit to cut down on food waste.

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