Monday, 18 October 2010


Left are rejected potatoes

A few weeks ago a colleague and I walked the fields around West Malling in Kent. We passed rows of lettuce ready for picking but left in the field to be ploughed in, why? Easy answer, they was not quite the right shape and /or size.

A couple of weeks later I drove past Kent orchards where apples had been left on the tree and are now rotting on the ground, why? Yes, you are there already, they were not quite the right shape and /or size.

All over the UK some of the potatoes, cauliflowers, apples, carrots, tomatoes and other produce we grow are rejected by supermarkets because they are not the right size, shape, or colour. Tomatoes, like apples and many other fruit and veg actually have to be a certain grade of colour and as for apples; those that are picked in the UK have a reject rate of around one fifth, they are perfectly OK to eat but don’t quite make ‘the standard’. The UK imports 70% of the apples bought and these have to conform to the supermarkets standards; they need to be blemish-less and weigh on average about 150g. The size and appearance of fruit and veg is all important, I would hope that taste comes in there somewhere but I have the idea that it’s somewhat behind the shelf-life demands!

The class structure in the UK has now filtered down to fruit and veg; there is ‘Class 1’, so this must be the best surely? ‘Class 2’, so obviously not so good, and then we may well have ‘cooking’ or ‘fun size’. I find myself somewhat confused when the term ‘cooking’ is applied to an onion, does this mean it cannot be eaten raw or used for pickling? When ‘fun size’ is applied to apples, does this mean that the other apples are a miserable lot?

In the supermarkets drive for sales, presentation seems to be all. Fruit and veg are displayed in a way that would have seemed over the top in an amateur grower’s competition. Farmers are dictated to by the supermarkets as to what they will purchase and so have to conform or go out of business. There is concern in the UK about the ever increasing spread of polytunnels on our farms but it is neither realistic nor economic to grow, for example, strawberries in the UK climate to the standards demanded by the supermarkets without tunnel protection.

So instead of selling almost all of the fruit and veg we produce much is fed to animals or simply ploughed back into the soil, and instead the UK imports, among many others, apples from all over the world, green beans and salads from Africa, and tomatoes from Spain. I know that the same applies in the U.S., in Australia and New Zealand also, and I expect also applies in much of the EU as well.

So the consumer is educated away from anything that looks less than perfect, the price they pay goes up and produce is then imported from abroad to make up for the rejected shortfall. Food miles increase enormously, pollution increases enormously, and, as I said prices increase enormously. Are there times when you look at a situation and feel that reality and common sense are unrelated?

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