Revealing The Myths In The Ugly Produce Industry
Billions of pounds of fruits and vegetables go to waste every year — about 30 to 40 percent of the food supply chain in the United States, according to the Department of Agriculture.
While plenty of food waste happens in our own homes, it also happens on farms. The USDA estimates that a third of all produce from farmers goes uneaten, amounting to about $161.6 billion in waste. Much of this waste has to do with logistical issues, but some food is also wasted due to cosmetic reasons. “Ugly produce,” the lore goes, is often too unattractive to sell and gets tossed, whether it’s because an apple is bruised or because a carrot is too strangely shaped to be sold.
In the past few years, several startups have stepped in ostensibly to try to break the cycle of ugly food waste. Venture capital-backed companies like Imperfect Produce, Full Harvest, Hungry Harvest, and Misfits Market say they provide a solution to the problem: They create a new channel of distribution for farmers, offer customers ugly produce at a significant discount to what the groceries would cost at retail, then donate the rest to food banks.
As Misfits Markets CEO Abhi Ramesh told me in January, “We see ourselves as the Robin Hood figure here. We’re the aggregator of food waste. ... We’re investing in the pipeline between farms and food banks.”
Not everyone buys it, though.
One prominent skeptic of the ugly produce industry is Sarah Taber, a crop scientist who worked on farms for a decade, doing everything from detasseling corn to beekeeping. She now consults for several greenhouse and indoor agricultural companies and hosts the podcastFarm To Taber.
A few weeks after I interviewed Ramesh of Misfits Market, I saw an impassioned Twitter thread from Taber responding to recent stories about ugly produce startups, and called her up to hear more of her perspective. Read on to learn why Taber believes sustainable ugly produce is a myth, why she wants to change the popular narrative that Americans need to save farmers, and how she believes the food supply chain can become less wasteful. This interview has been edited and condensed.
When did you start noticing ugly produce being a thing?
It’s always been a thing! Like all living things, produce does not always come out perfect. Plus, there’s all the shipping and handling that goes into the modern food supply chain, and things get banged up. People treat ugly product like it’s this horrible tragedy that’s preventable, but really, this is just the nature of fresh produce. The way the food system mainly used to deal with perishability, though, was by canning and freezing produce.
What changed that?
The sustainable food movement. They came around and said everyone needs to eat more fresh produce and should know where their food comes from. This has turned into an expression of a cultural crisis: It’s created anxiety. People now panic if they don’t know where food comes from, and the constant messaging about how you “should” be reinforces the anxiety. Any time people are having these anxieties, marketers take advantage of it. But the market-based solutions that marketing endorses don’t fix the root cause.
You’ve been vocal on Twitter about how ugly produce companies are not really fixing food waste. What claims are they making that you believe are myths?
They say that a lot of the ugly produce goes to waste. But there’s a huge part of that produce that goes to food service, where it gets cut up and appearance doesn’t matter.
Honestly, I think these companies just found a good hustle that makes them look good and makes money. There’s nothing morally wrong with that, but to go out and say, “I’m saving the world and I’m fixing a food problem,” when there are actually better solutions is really disingenuous. It’s just a profit-oriented solution.
What are some other myths in the ugly food produce industry?
I think they’ve painted this idea that the food just tragically rots and that’s that. But when a crop is complete, farmers plow everything back into the soil. Some of it ends up as organic matter that is supporting soil health, and that is okay, too. And a lot of ugly produce ends up being fed to animals when there’s no human market for it. Melons, for example, have no soft market, so they are fed to cattle and pigs, but then you have people going, “Oh, my god, it’s wasted!” But somebody ate it. So is that really waste? No.
So what should shoppers do? Buy ugly produce or avoid it?
The first thing I want to say is if you’re buying ugly produce and it’s working for you, that’s fine. Keep doing it. Don’t feel guilty. That’s how food systems are supposed to work — it’s supposed to get what you want. But you should not feel obligated to buy ugly fruit because someone told you it’s going to save the world. It’s not. It’s just supporting someone’s business model.
Why, in your opinion, is our food system is broken? And why do we have so much food waste?
There are several factors that contribute to [the waste of] produce, but one is that in the United States, we don’t [grow food in] greenhouses. We [grow it in] open fields, almost exclusively.
Open-field farming is really vulnerable to crop loss. It’s seasonal. Produce that has been exposed to the environment often goes bad faster [than produce grown in greenhouses]. Open-field horticulture is a really wasteful system, and the only reason the US gets away with it is [because of] very cheap land, water, and labor.
So you think switching to greenhouses would help reduce food waste?
Instead of running a rescue operation for farmers to sell their ugly produce, we should invest in switching to greenhouses. With greenhouses, you don’t get as much dinged-up, unmarketable produce because the plants are not getting exposed to rain and whipped around by the wind. It doesn’t work for every single crop, but tomatoes, strawberries, and cucumbers should be growing under glass.
But that is something farmers are going to have to do themselves. This feeds into a larger problem in the farming industry: Farmers need to actually be thinking through their supply chain and what they’re going to do with all of their product. Some farmers around the world have put together co-ops, and took government grants to build better systems. If others are not doing it, nobody should save them.
Why don’t you think farmers are worth saving?
You have a certain number of farmers who really know what they’re doing, and their head’s in the game. But then there are people who don’t pay attention to their business. We should not be saving those people.
So you’re saying these farmers are part of the problem of food waste. But don’t they say they don’t have the money or the infrastructure to improve their business (and thus waste less)?
Bullshit. There are tons of free programs that help farms out. It’s about changing a mindset, because most farmers want to grow produce the way they are used to. And so the startups trying to help farmers sell their ugly produce to the market are feeding right into this mindset without doing anything to fix the problem.
California is great at farming. People say it’s because of the weather, but that’s a polite fiction. It’s because of the people. They have specialized harvest crews, and they have people with all the experience and skills. The farmers out there are really more like a general contractor.
But when you move into areas that don’t have that really developed farm economy, farmers kind of have to do everything themselves, and one person can’t be amazing at all different parts of that supply chain, so you end up with a lot of bad systems and open fields, and a lot of produce that belongs to a farmer without a marketing plan. It’s really hard to convey to folks who aren’t in agriculture how skill-poor a lot of these farmers are. I’d say about 20 percent know what they’re doing. And so I find reinforcing this culture of having to save farmers inappropriate.
What about this idea that we need to buy fresh produce? Do you think there are wealth or class implications there?
To a big extent, eating fresh produce is a conspicuous consumption thing. Yes, fresh produce is good for you, just like exercise is good for you. But wearing fancy athleisure? There’s a whole other level that’s mostly about class and showing off. If you’re into taking care of your health, frozen veggies will do it.
There’s also a big claim that fresh produce is more nutritious. But here’s my bone to pick with that: Fresh produce gets shipped. It gets degraded. And so it also technically loses some of its nutritional value as it ships through the supply chain. If you freeze it, it stays fresh until you thaw it. I’m not saying people shouldn’t eat fresh produce; I love eating fresh produce, but I also know that it’s really expensive and it takes a lot of time to prepare. So if we act like that’s the one true way to be healthy, we are doing something dangerous. And that’s why I’m skeptical of these food startups.
Is there anything consumers can do to help farmers waste less food?
The thing is, useful interventions don’t come from the startup world, or from consumers. The problem with food waste is that there are already all the tools out there to fix it. There are farming grants and loans. There are also tools like marketing cooperatives; farmers can build their own cooperatives to handle marketing on their own terms instead of letting brokers do it all for them. They could also build value-added processing, like packing houses, salsa kitchens, to handle their ugly produce either as individual farms or co-ops, using those grant loan resources. They just ... don’t. The people who can use them just aren’t.
So I guess you could go be a farm entrepreneur and learn the food distribution chain and then do it right, which, by all means, go do that. But as a starting point, some of the changes in the food system will come just by exposing some of the bullshit so we can pause on the sympathy and work on worthy causes.
What are some causes in the food system that you find worthy?
Support Native food programs. Native Americans, a very small percentage of the country’s population, actually make up a high number of the farmers we have, and a lot of the most innovative stuff happening in real meaningful food developments right now are run by native groups. In North Dakota, Lakota are raising bison the right way, and they’re building actual supply chains with integrity. They don’t get funding because they aren’t a flashy, sexy startup, but they’re doing the real work. Same thing with the Yakama Nation in Washington, which are running some orchards. They have the tightest ship I’ve ever seen.