By Elise Leise

Nothing but aesthetically perfect produce will placate the people, realised Del Monte and Dole, Freshco and Fiesta, Rainbow Farms and Ready-Pac Produce. We initially failed to notice the shift in our supermarkets.

Our cuisine became akin to other aspects of our society: an art form to be optimised. Yet now, we ask of ourselves…where have the bruised apples, lumpy carrots, and not-quite-red enough strawberries gone? 

Well, the truth is that the unlucky uglies were ostracised, banished to the realm of refuse heaps, replaced by aesthetically pleasing produce. Woe to the heaps of unwanted cassava and cauliflower, arugula and asparagus, konjac and kohlrabi. They were left to rot where they fell, get devoured by ravenous livestock, or be tossed in the amalgamation of the compost pile—nothing befitting vegetables of formerly royal status. 

Hence our fruit became riper, our vegetables brighter, our tubers more symmetrical, as all the while the epidemic of food waste, or what is classed as the “discarding or alternative use” of nutritious and safe food, spread through our supermarkets. 

The Food Waste Epidemic

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations found that one-third of food produced for human consumption is wasted; this amounts to approximately 1.3 billion tonnes of produce per year. This is not solely household wastage, mind. Rather, a totaled figure of waste throughout the supply chain, from the initial agricultural production to the cupboard in our kitchens. Unfortunately, every year consumers in wealthier, economically developed nations throw away 222 million tonnes of food, almost as much as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa. 

To me, the numbers alone don’t evoke the full depth of deserved emotion. Instead, I think about the story of food in my host village in Western Africa, where we ate well, but where sometimes there was no fish at the market, where we saved the leftovers from lunch for dinner. Saving everything you could wasn’t “something you should do” out of environmental guilt, but a measure of respect for those who had taken hours to harvest, prepare, and serve the meal. 

I can say that food loss and waste represent a “misuse of the labour, water, energy, land, and other natural resources” used to produce it. But I think I’d rather imagine my host uncles in Senegal and the farmers all over the world who leave as the sun lightens the sky to water their fields. I think that when I do that, and when any of us imagine the people and places where our food comes from, throwing out food doesn’t seem just a “normal” habit anymore. We see more of what it truly is—a symptom of our divorce from the reasons we eat food in the first place. 

The Perfectionist Manifesto

In an age where those of us who have the means can choose from an endless array of options, they shall settle for nothing but the best. 

This somewhat alluring ideology leads to us dumping food into the garbage, leaving crops to rot, and even more dangerously, creating a food system that removes and discards tonnes of produce before it reaches consumers. 

Perfectionism in anything is, in part, an unhealthy focus. In this scenario, we focus on the details at the cost of losing sight of the overall purpose. So it goes with our culinary pursuits as well; our love affair with the image of healthy meals, diets, and perfect food. The irregularities and bumps and scars of our “ugly food” are mere discardable details, but the perfectionist manifesto naturally leads to the misguided conclusion that what is different is detrimental. 

We forget that food, first and foremost, gives us the energy to live and do what we love. It brings together both strangers and lovers, family and communities, young and old to share in a moment of fulfilment. 

Reversing the Trend

Today, organisations and individuals worldwide are working to give food and farmers a renewed level of respect. Internationally, the United Nations (UN) has developed policies to reduce food waste and raise awareness. Nationally, governments are trying to improve coordination between farmers, handlers, and processors to save our ugly, but delicious food.

Companies such as Ugly Food in Singapore even address the problem head-on, partnering with wholesalers and producers to save the “ugly food” no one wants and making it into juices and ice creams. Upon discovering that the equivalent of more than two bowls of rice per person a day was wasted in 2017, Ugly Food set out to change the narrative. They’ve saved 22,859 fruits and veggies, reducing waste while providing customers with food that invites happiness. 

Their vision? Zero food waste. 

How You Can Contribute

You can look up countless lists of individual behaviours that, if implemented into our daily lives, would make a positive change – indeed, there are whole blogs, websites, and books devoted to exactly that. Choose reasonable portions at restaurants, keep track of best-by dates, refrigerate leftovers, re-use ingredients.

But it still sometimes feels like that’s not enough, which is disempowering as hell. We sense a divide between what we’re told and what we see. How can we believe that many small actions will solve everything while we observe factory farms discarding more produce than is possible to individually save? How do we reconcile our need to act with the reality that re-using our leftovers is relatively insignificant? 

We could re-cultivate our respect for food and the people who make it. We could embrace ugly food – heaven forbid – and let go of this all-consuming manifesto of perfectionism. How? Take a tour of the local community garden, take time to eat a special meal with family, and always thank whoever cooked for the time they took to prepare a dish. 

That’s something that doesn’t make you feel guilty about not doing enough. Contrary to popular opinion, not all change requires sacrifice. Often, the most impactful measures, like enjoying the food we do have, make us happier by making room for riveting conversation and connection.  Guess what?  That’s okay! Change can feel good. 

The Art of Ugly Food 

You were promised a story, one of ugly food and perfectionism and societal change. We identified the real story of our waste epidemic and agreed that it’s incredibly unfair that people still go hungry in our world. But barring the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, good stories end brilliantly, and this one is no different. 

There is a future in which policymakers, companies, innovators, and consumers save our “ugly food” and the lives of millions by reintroducing respect for produce. In doing so, we’ll save the spice and zest of how we live, de-optimising the art of food. Our cassava and arugula and konjac won’t rot on a heap of trash, with flies swarming around them. And in this future, in which we laugh at family dinners, savour rich wine on dinner dates, and connect with strangers at celebrations, the ugliness of our food will fail to distract us from the sweetness of the moment.

That’s the real story.