Here in Britain we throw away a staggering 8.3 million tonnes of food and drink every year**. There are lots of reasons for this: over purchasing, cooking more than you can eat, and slavish devotion to – frankly misleading – ‘use by’ and ‘sell by’ dates on food. We seem to have lost the ability to tell with a sniff and a prod whether food is still safe and good to eat, which in itself is a terrible shame.
As sad as this is, the BBC’s Great British Waste Menu, which was aired earlier this week, showed a far more troubling source of all this waste. Growers and suppliers to the supermarkets are discarding colossal amounts of their produce, before it even reaches the stores, in order to meet the rather arbitrary specifications the supermarkets demand. The show filmed one lettuce grower where what seemed like half his crop was left in the fields, because the salad leaves were either too big or two small; and in the polytunnels at a soft fruit farm, the pickers were simply dropping onto the floor the strawberries which were slightly misshapen, too large, or two small.
What troubled me particularly about this was the repeated claim – from growers and shop managers – it is the consumer who is driving this demand. Can this be so? Who amongst us is going into stores and declaring that your strawberries must be precisely between 3-4cm in size? That your lettuce must be no more than 24cm in diameter? That your eggs weigh precisely 57g? A knobbly potato tastes as good as a perfectly smooth-sided one. A box of tomatoes which has a variety of sizes inside has infinitely more appeal, once sliced and plated as a salad, than one made of identically sized toms.
I have been growing 5 different varieties of tomatoes this year, though the changeable weather has meant that few have yielded a decent crop. But take a look at this little beauty:
Glorious, isn’t he? A giant, oversized, gnarly Marmande. This little guy would never make it off the grower’s land, never mind make it to a shop, but I can promise you it tasted better than any polystyrene-textured supermarket ‘perfect’ tomato. Bitten into much as you would an apple, the marmande has sweet-sharp juice and a lovely firm texture, and all the curves, lumps and bumps just add to the mouth-feel and character.
The vast majority of us still shop in supermarkets for at least some of our groceries. Some of them are testing the water right now by selling, in their basics/value lines, produce which wouldn’t normally make it into store – the mini strawberries, or the oversized potatoes. They’re from the same growers, and they’re the same as their ‘perfect’ cousins on the shelf above, they’re just a damn sight cheaper because they don’t meet the specs which we, the customers, are apparently demanding. This is our chance to prove them wrong – and to provide the growers with much-needed revenue for what would otherwise be a totally wasted product. And we’ll make a dent in that rather terrifying pile of waste too…..