Food waste: a Colombian/Australian perspective

In trying to get a better understanding of our food system, I find it helpful to look at different perspectives and see things through different people’s eyes. I remember having some fascinating conversations with a former colleague Asseneth Quintero, who at the time had recently moved to Australia from Colombia, about differences in the way that we purchase our food. Asseneth kindly agreed to write down some of these observations in a guest blog which I have shared below. “Food waste: eat seasonal, cook humble, be appreciative” “Food waste struck me when Susie invited me to share my personal observations on how fresh food is marketed, consumed and sold in Australia and Colombia. Thanks to their diverse climate, both countries enjoy the fortune of having fresh produce available all year round. Similarly, both countries’ produce are highly regarded in international markets. Australia is internationally acclaimed for its produce of beef, dairy, fruit and vegetables. According to Austrade, more than two thirds of Australia’s produce are exported each year. Similarly, Colombia has made its mark on the global map for its premium-quality coffee and bananas. 2013-07-17 02.51.39-2But where these two countries widely differ is on how food is wasted. Globally, 1.3 billion tonnes of food goes to waste every year, being the major causes for waste: production-to-retailing infrastructure and consumer behaviour, according to a study from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Food waste can then be distilled into how fresh produce is marketed, consumed and sold in each country. Little advertising vs MasterChef-level marketing In Colombia, fresh food consumption is driven by seasonality rather than by marketing. Buying fresh food is so deeply embedded in Colombian culture that it needs no marketing. I can only recall advertising from peak industry bodies. For instance, Fedegan, the nation’s peak body representing livestock producers, regularly promotes beef over other mutually-exclusive products, just like Meat & Livestock Australia’s latest campaign ‘You are better on beef’. Otherwise, very little advertising goes into promoting fresh food. On the contrary, a great marketing effort goes into driving demand for fresh produce in Australia. Peak industry bodies, cooking television shows, renowned chefs’ cookbooks and specialty magazines actively promote home cooking. These efforts incentivise the use of fresh produce at heart. However, these marketing efforts also put a price tag on fresh produce by elevating its status—making it unaffordable for many. Food waste starts when we give cosmetic and gourmet characteristics to fresh produce. According to Food Wise, an estimated 20% to 40% of fruit and vegetables get rejected due to cosmetic standards. Not all produce meets the catalogue-look standard to make it to the shelves of supermarkets, let alone the award-winning look to make it to the consumer’s dinner plate. The bruised apple and the weird-shaped carrot have just been sentenced to rejection. Humble home cooking vs sophisticated eating Certainly, roulades and three-way dishes do not find a place on the average Colombian cook’s recipe book. Colombians instead cook humble meals that are quick to prepare and do the job: relieve hunger, a basic human need. Juggling tight budgets and with large families to feed, most Colombians recall their mothers or grandmothers saying: ‘eat it all! Don’t leave anything on your plate’. Colombians are taught to be appreciative of food, as you never know when you will be unable to put some on the table. The MasterChef-level marketing has left its footprint on Australia’s eating behaviours, especially on generation Y. Research has found that popularity of television cooking shows has sparked the purchase of household cooking items. Similarly, this trend has also boosted the complexity of dishes prepared at home. This trend contrast starkly with the reality of everyday life. Full of inspiration, supplied with only the best fresh produce and equipped with all kitchen utensils, Australians venture into recreating amazing dishes at home—a home cook’s paradise. Contrarily, research found that Australians reach for more takeaways and out-of-home meals than for the fridge door. No blame. This new benchmark is disheartening. With long working hours, hectic lifestyles and inflated expectations, home cooks are surely better off picking up some food on their way home. And this very reasoning leads to $2.67 billion worth of fresh food being thrown away every year in Australia—33% of all food wasted in a year in Australia. According to Food Wise, one of the top reasons for fresh food waste is buying takeaways at the last minute. Australia is not alone on this trend though. Food waste is an epidemic issue in the developed world. Down to being appreciative Consumption of fresh produce is endemic in Colombian major cities. Fresh produce is available virtually anywhere. Colombians can easily reach for fresh ingredients to put a meal together. Almost every suburb has a market where cooks can indulge in fresh ingredients at very reasonable prices. The convenience of having fresh produce at hand influences purchase behaviour. It’s not unusual to buy dinner ingredients at lunch time of the very same day. This flexibility also allows Colombians to buy in small quantities. You can easily buy $0.50 worth of thyme just before you start cooking. Flexibility in quantities and availability aid to give access to fresh food to many—even those trying to make ends meet. Low prices and abundance seems like a home cook’s paradise. However, it is not without putting a strain on farmers. The agricultural sector in Colombia is fragmented with farmers producing low volume. Since not much attention goes into cosmetic traits, most fresh produce doesn’t meet international standards. Farmers therefore become dependent and vulnerable to local demand. During high season of any given crop, selling price might not even cover for transport and distribution costs. Sadly, it results on food going to waste without even have left the farms. While Colombians are very appreciative of food, we might not be as appreciative of our farmers—a contradictory behaviour among many in this country. Australia’s reality in this area seems quite different. Farmers have the latest production technologies. Supported by well-developed infrastructure, fresh produce excess makes its way to international markets. In the local demand arenas, chain supermarkets dominate the supply chain, and make sure consumers pay a fair price for fresh produce. However, —as in any relationship—the bargaining power of the dominant party increases exponentially when power is unbalanced among the parties. This is the reason some farmers have turned to develop their own brands and distribution channels to bring their produce to consumers. As in many areas of my life, being a Colombian-Aussie has brought the best out of me. I have become more appreciative of food and farmers alike. I now turn weird-shaped apples, bought at the local fresh market, into amazing-looking apple tarts. Most importantly, I make sure my husband eats it all, so no food goes to waste. Despite good intentions, I have to admit I still run to the closest takeaway shop all too often as my busy lifestyle kicks in. Another great difference that I can’t let pass is apple and pear production. Unlike Australia, Colombia’s production doesn’t meet local demand. They are therefore imported, mostly from Chile and the United States. I hope the yummy South Australian apples and pears find their way to Colombia one day. For those who want to learn more about food waste, here is a list of useful resources:

The real cost of perfect food

According to the recently released National Food Plan, it is estimated that a whopping 30 to 50 per cent of all food produced on the planet is not eaten. In Australia, on average each person generates roughly 360 kilograms of food waste every year.

These figures are staggering. In order to feed an ever growing population, we cannot just continue to strive for greater production efficiencies without ignoring the issue of food waste.

There are various reasons for food wastage that occur. For many of us, food that goes off in our refrigerator before we get to eat it or left-overs from restaurants that get discarded are the obvious ones.

However a significant degree of waste is also occurring as a by-product of our seemingly insatiable demand for fresh produce that looks perfect, has consistent eating quality and is of perfect size and colour. Much of this waste is not even taken into account in the quoted figures above!

Fresh produce that does not meet a required specification is often discarded before it even leaves the field. Perfectly good food is rejected for a minor blemish or for being the wrong colour, size or shape.

Further, growers are having to go to extraordinary lengths to produce this “perfect” produce; investing heavily in complex growing systems and fighting a battle they can never win completely to iron out the “imperfections” of nature. It takes a lot of effort and costs a lot of money to grow the perfect piece of fruit and vegetable. It takes even more effort to grow an entire field of exactly the same perfect fruit or vegetables.

I would like to share the story of how Australia’s apple growers are tackling this challenge.

Right now as we move into winter, apple growers around the country are beginning a year-long challenge of fruit production. They are taking care of post-harvest nutrition to ensure that the trees have plenty of reserves as they go into dormancy. They are also beginning the process of winter pruning, which goes on for many months. Every single tree in an orchard is pruned by hand. Pruning is a complex science and also an art form that sets down the shape of the tree for the coming year, its vigour and how many pieces of fruit will be carried by each tree. Every tree may be pruned several times over to achieve the desired result. It is one of the most fundamental processes in a commercial apple orchard, but also one of the most labour intensive. 20120724_162910Modern orchards are planted at very high tree densities and dwarfing rootstocks to enable greater control over tree vigour and allow for pruning trees to a shape that allows for even light distribution throughout the canopy. This is critical in achieving even colour distribution and fruit ripening.

The amount of fruit that each tree carries directly affects the size of the fruit. So this is a key consideration in all orchard activities. For example, growers strive to grow a Pink Lady apple of a 75 mm diameter, because this has been shown to be the size of apple that consumers are looking for. Apples significantly bigger or smaller than this just won’t sell as well.

As we head into spring and the first blossoms appear, some growers may also consider a process of root pruning, where the tree roots are gently ripped to reduce tree vigour and improve consistency of yields from one year to the next. Bee hives are introduced into orchards to assist with pollination. Good pollination is critical in achieving target yields and the target number of fruit per tree.20121001_102029

Then growers assess the numbers of flowers and viable fruit buds. On many trees, various methods of fruit thinning are then required to reduce the crop load. This is usually achieved through a mixture of chemical applications of plant hormones to induce some shedding, followed up by hand thinning. This is another manual process that occurs during spring, where excess fruit is individually picked off each tree and thrown onto the ground.20121025_165448Through the season, growers then continually monitor and assess the growth of their trees as well as the size of the fruit. Often, growers will go through and do a summer prune to remove excess canopy that is shading the fruit – another manual process.

Growers also closely monitor pests and diseases and use integrated pest management techniques to minimise any damage to fruit. In the heat of summer, sunscreen may even be applied in periods of extreme heat to minimise the effects of fruit sunburn (a special food-safe fruit sunscreen)! Often extremely expensive netting structures are used to avoid damage from birds.

Closer to harvest, if fruit size is a problem growers will adjust their water and nutrient management accordingly, and also may consider a second hand-thinning. Many growers also roll out a reflective matting onto the ground surface that helps reflect light into the lower canopy and improve evenness of fruit colour.IMG_3027

At harvest, all picking is done by hand, to ensure fruit is not bruised or damaged. At this point, any obviously blemished, pale, misshapen or poorly sized fruit is discarded straight onto the ground. Fruit is picked at the correct ripeness for its storage needs, then immediately cooled as quickly as possible to ensure it is maintained at optimum freshness. IMG_3057IMG_3044 Fruit that is identified to be at risk of not storing well will be sold straight away. Fruit that is to be stored for longer will be kept in high tech cool rooms where gas levels and moisture levels are controlled to ensure maximum fruit quality after storage.

At the point of packing, growers have to aim for at least a 90% pack out rate. This means that at least 90% of the fruit they supply to the pack house will be sold as first grade fruit. As much as possible of this fruit needs to be of the optimum size range to get the best returns. Any lower pack out rate, or if they get the sizing wrong, they will be losing money. The returns on second grade fruit going to juice or processing just aren’t enough to tip this balance.20130130_092730All their activities throughout the year are targeted towards providing a product that is deemed in demand by the general consumer. What is referred to in industry as the “mars bar fruit” – something that looks and eats exactly the same every time, no matter what part of the tree or orchard it comes from.

This story is not unique to the apple industry. It is across all fresh fruit and vegetable production.

So the question becomes is all this effort and in-field wastage really necessary? Further more, by the very essence of demanding consistency of product, are we as a result creating a more mediocre eating experience? Are we providing a consistently good product, but missing out on the surprise experiences that occur through natural variability and complexity.

Are we jeopardizing the very variability that is essential to natural order and life? Are we missing the chance natural genetic mutations that may provide new opportunities for further exciting eating experiences?

What are your thoughts? What do you look for when you go to buy your fruit and vegetables?