Course:CONS200/2016w2/Wiki Projects/Insistence on Cosmetically Perfect Fruits and Vegetables

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This conservation resource was created by Eric Nance, Anique Vadnais, Claire Hicks, and Thomas Lawson.

Cosmetically Perfect Fruits and Vegetables meet aesthetic standards of size, shape, and are free of physical blemishes[1]. Produce that does not meet these standards is often thrown away, and can be classified as either food loss or food waste. Food loss is defined as the edible food that is lost throughout production, postharvest, and processing, whereas food waste refers to edible food lost at the end of the food chain due to behaviour of retailers and consumers[2]. Fruits and vegetables have a higher wastage rate than any other food products, with roughly 40-50% of global production lost every year [3]. Although food loss is a global issue, industrialized countries such as the United States and Canada contribute US$680 billion worth of food loss, while developing countries contribute only US$310billion[3]. Per capita waste in Europe and North America is between 95-115 kg per year, while consumers throw away only 6-11 kg per year in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia [3]. Some food loss is unavoidable for health and safety reasons"[4] , however, the consumers' demand for cosmetically perfect fruits and vegetables has created an unnecessary amount of waste. Farmers, distributors, and supermarkets reinforce these harmful behaviours throughout the food supply chain, in order to satisfy the demand of their customers. As populations continue to grow and arable land continues to be degraded by unsustainable agricultural practices, these consumer patterns threaten global food security. Without remedial action, societies that rely on this global food market will face substantial consequences economically, socially, and environmentally.

Carrots often need to meet a market "aesthetic" standards. INRA DIST. CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Main Actors

As globalization spreads through the modern world, it brings the ideals of economy-of-scale and efficiency-driven business to food production. In the 1930’s, a time described as the Green Revolution, agriculture became subject to large scale streamlining by large corporations, who pushed themselves into a market formerly dominated by small-scale, local farmers. These corporations outsourced crop production to lands with more optimal climate for vegetative growth and a less expensive labor force. The produce grown by these companies is then transported by trucks, trains, and planes to consumer outlets (primarily supermarkets), and ultimately to consumers around the globe.

The modern food supply chain consists of three principle actors, consumers, markets, and farmers, who all contribute to food waste at various levels:


Consumers are responsible for 28 percent of the fruit and vegetable waste[2], which represents the majority of edible produce that goes to waste among the supply chain. Consumers are the main force that drives demand, therefore they expect supermarkets and farmers to provide a plentiful amount of produce that adhere to specific aesthetic requirements.

Since supermarkets compete with one another to provide quality products, they aim to supply the most visually pleasing fruits and vegetables [5]. Because buyers have never had a selection that includes misshapen and imperfect produce, consumers have become accustomed to a specific grade of harvest. Fruits and vegetables that meet to supermarket standards are also more tailored towards the buyers' convenience. Produce that is easier to peel, chop, is much more manageable to cook with compared to produce that is misshapen and deformed [2]. Consequently, consumers are more critical of produce and less inclined to purchase outside of their comfort zones, which reinforces the standards of perfection set for suppliers.

As a result of a culture that emphasizes mass consumerism, households shop for groceries with a mindset of ‘more is more’. This behaviour is encouraged by supermarkets through strong advertising, the promotion of deals and discounts on bulk items, such as ‘buy two, get one free'[6].

With high market demand and a consumerist mindset, consumers tend to overbuy and then fail to eat all the produce they purchased [6]. Because fruits and vegetables are perishable, they are either left uneaten too long or are thrown out prematurely. With a lack of proper disposal systems, much of this once perfectly edible produce ends up in landfills.

This means that all of the water, fuel, and labour put into the production and transport of fruit and vegetables was for nothing. This potential unnecessary environmental impacts derived from produce waste is an unsustainable practice, which threatens the environmental food as well as food availability to consumers in the future [6].


Supermarkets act as an intermediary between consumers and farmers and although they do not contribute directly to a majority of the food waste, the standards set by markets play an important role in the amount of food wasted; in this case, fruits and vegetables. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 12 percent of fruit and vegetable loss comes from retail[2]. The three main factors of this food waste include supply chain inefficiencies, marketing standards, and marketing strategies, with standards being the main factor of cosmetically perfect fruits and vegetables.

Standards that establish food safety and quality objectives are regulated by public authorities[7]but private standards for product differentiation are set by businesses[7][8][9]. Supermarkets use these standards to compete with other retailers and to meet the expectations of the consumer. Consistently meeting a high standard creates consumer confidence in the brand. Because consumers have expectations of what fruits and vegetables should look like, markets are concerned that they will lose business if they sell produce that do not meet the cosmetic standard. Cosmetic standards include no blemishes as well as specific size, shape, and color.

Supermarkets are concerned with creating a reliable image that customers can trust. One of the ways they create this image is by providing shelves filled with fresh food, but customers often do not see the unsustainable methods used to create this reputation. Many times, markets throw away perfectly good produce because consumers misinterpret the purpose of sell-by dates and assume that after these dates products are not good for consumption. To avoid the appearance of selling near-expired produce, markets often to throw this food out 2 to 3 days before the date even it is safe to consume[10]. Markets also use overstocking as a strategy to create an image of always having more than enough. Because of the low cost of discarding food, especially for fruits and vegetables in comparison to meat and dairy, markets often feel complacent about ordering more than can be sold and discard the rest[9]. This practice creates pressure for farmers to produce large yields to meet this demand and keep up with competition leading to less concern about sustainable agriculture practices.

Supply chain inefficiencies between farmers and retail create waste due to incorrect predictions of consumer demand[3][9]. "Large commercial food buyers can demand tough contract terms including quantity guarantees and the ability to change orders at the last minute. Growers often over plant beyond their contracts for fear of not fulfilling them"[10].


Food production begins with a farm. It is here that farmers cultivate crops of different varieties to be distributed, often through an intermediary, to consumers. Food production is dominated by large-scale agriculture practices which maximize the efficiency of crop production by applying synthetic fertilizers to artificially increase nutrient availability to plants, growth hormones and antibiotics used to induce greater plant yield and reduce the effects of natural disease, and pesticides to fight against natural or invasive pests such as insects and weeds. "Intensive farming" is a term coined to describe this method of farming, where farmers are able to obtain a much greater crop yield and faster crop cycle on a relatively small amount of land[11].

Despite farmers determinations to produce the highest yield possible, up to 20 percent of fruit and vegetable loss occurs in agricultural production[2]. The majority of farm-level food loss is due to over harvesting. Farmers will often over estimate their harvest size when planting to ensure that a crop loss, resulting from any number of biotic or abiotic factors, does not inhibit them from filling their orders. If a healthy crop yield is obtained, this will result in excess produce that does not have a buyer and is often thrown away. Small blemishes which occur during harvest and while processing the food are another contributor to food loss on farms. Produce is handled many times after it is pulled from the ground, and at every step there is an opportunity for produce to be bruised, punctured, or overexposed to the sun. This produce will not meet a quality inspection and be thrown out, regardless of how superficial the blemish may be. Produce that is not sold, or doesn't make grade, may be cycled back into the soil through composting, but is often disposed of in landfills as a less expensive alternative.



Converting natural lands to farmland often requires native habitat destruction and biodiversity loss. Land conversion in developing countries contributes 72% of their biodiversity loss, while developed countries contribute 44% respectively[12]. The majority of the loss, as defined at an ecosystem and species level by the Food and Agriculture Organization, is from deforestation. Some produce, such as specific varieties of fruit tree, are able to grow amongst the native species, and therefore allows crop cultivation while maintaining the natural biodiversity [12]. This integrated farming is much more sustainable than traditional practices, however the majority of our crops are still grown on land that has been completely cleared of natural vegetation. When the natural land is converted for agricultural use, it becomes subject to severe degradation. The FAO classifies land degradation as a "reduction of land capacity to provide ecosystems good and services over a period of time for its beneficiaries.[12]" This harmful degradation has many negative effects, such as nutrient depletion, and increased erosion [13]. Erosion by wind and excess water removes nutrient-rich top soil and reduce the fertility of the soil[13]. In extreme cases, countries like Brazil lose 55 million tons of top soil annually[13]. The decrease in soil fertility causes a reduction crop yield and forces farmers to expand their agricultural practices[13].

When a consumer throws away edible produce they are not just wasting an apple or a carrot, but all of the resources that were used to produce that food. To assess all the resources involved in growing a piece of produce, one must track each step along the production chain. This starts with the land that the produce was grown on. This may seem insignificant, however globally, agriculture uses 40 percent of Earth's land, with 1.4billion ha used to grow produce that will later be thrown away[14]. Once the seed is planted, it requires a massive amount of water. In fact, agriculture uses roughly 70% of the worlds freshwater supply, and because about 40% of this produce will be lost or wasted, more than 25% of the worlds freshwater goes to wasted food[15]. If a farm is not practicing organic cultivation, then pesticides, fertilizers and growth hormones will likely be used to promote healthy crop growth. These chemicals are all extremely energy intensive to create, and have serious negative effects on the environment. Now that the produce has grown, it is distributed from the farm to the global consumer, a process which consumes 300 million barrels of oil per year with respect to wasted produce[15]. It is clear to see that many valuable resources are wasted when edible produce is thrown away.

Globally, if food waste was a country, it would be the third largest producer of greenhouse gasses following the United states and China [12]. Throughout the food supply chain wasted fruits and vegetables are often left to decompose in landfills. This decomposition process releases methane, a greenhouse gas which is 25 times more efficient at trapping solar radiation than carbon dioxide[16]. This contributes to climate change by increasing the Earth's temperature[17]. As the effects of climate change increase, temperatures rise and climate such as storms and droughts become more frequent, intense, and last longer[18] posing a serious threat to global food security. Due to impacts of climate change having a lag effect, farmers, markets, and consumers will not be affected by many of the consequences of today's unsustainable actions until it is irreversible[18]. As populations grow and produce demand rises so will methane from food waste, which is why mitigation of methane through alternative disposal of organic matter is crucial.


There are many parts along the food supply chain where produce is wasted, from audits, to packaging, to markets and consumer choice. This food loss is not only wasteful, but also expensive.

As shoppers are becoming aware of waste statistics, they are more driven to make a change for economic reasons. In the United States, approximately $936 of food that's purchased per household per year is not consumed[19]. This number is shown to increase with the number of occupants per household. Due to consumers largely overestimating the amount of actual food they eat, they continue to support the supermarkets' profits and prolong personal losses. By purchasing only food that they will consume, households could potentially save hundreds of dollars per year. This incentive not only makes sense economically, but it will also lessen environmental impacts.

For supermarkets, roughly $5.8 billion of fruits and $9.2 billion of vegetables are lost at the retail level from the US food supply annually[20]. Supermarkets do not consider this as a loss of money because they view overstocked shelves as part of the consumer experience, referring to producing the image of having an abundance of fresh produce to purchase. If the food waste for a market is low, they consider it an indicator that consumers did not get the experience the markets strive for. So although these numbers are high, markets do not view it as a cost but rather as an investment in marketing.

Approximately 20 percent of produce never leaves the farm [12]. The fruits and vegetables that do not meet market standards end up in the various places; some are used for nutrient cycling, others left to rot in fields, but most end up in the landfill [21]. This is due to unintentional producer surplus as a result of farmers try to meet the demand of markets. The economic losses experienced by farmers not only include the income from produce not sold to markets due to high aesthetic standards, but also the money spent on land, fertilizer, labour, water and other products that were used to grow this produce[11]. Farmers also carry the financial burden when markets cancel orders last minute, receiving no reimbursement [22].


The demand for cosmetically perfect fruits and vegetables is threatening the livelihood of many local small-scale production farmers. Farms are working to match consumer demand but not all producers are able to meet their quotas. Small-scale local farmers also have a very difficult time selling to markets because they can not compete against large industrial producers. These farmers do not have the labor force, capital investment, or technology that allows for efficient production of consistently desirable produce. These market pressures are causing large numbers of local farmers to abandon their farms and the sustainable agricultural practices they use. Not only are current farmers hanging up their pitchforks, but there are very few young farmers entering the small-scale market to fill their rolls. A decline in local farms means that consumers in the surrounding communities, who choose to buy sustainable produce, no longer have the ability to buy locally and must rely on imported produce.

Many consumers remain unaware of the consequences associated with the food they buy. Cultural trends towards consumerism, in conjunction with higher levels of disposable incomes, has resulted in overspending and overbuying by members of modern society. Buyers with a higher income can now afford to spend lots of money on food, so wasted food does not feel like a significant personal loss since they can afford to replace it. These consumers often take the apparent abundance and availability of produce for granted. Because grocery stores are always so well stocked, consumers rarely associate scarcity as a prominent issue. Due to a lack of education, consumers remain generally uninformed about the worries and concerns that the food supply industry faces.

Layering Perspectives: Additional Costs and/or Implications?

In this section, we welcome contributions from scholars and students to identify and uncover other hidden costs and/or implications related to cosmetically perfect produce.

Remedial Actions

Food Recovery

Throughout the food supply chain, there are many opportunities for consumers, retail, and farmers to participate in food recovery. The main objective for each actor would primarily be to limit food waste, which means that all food grown for human consumption would be consumed. But if food waste does occur, the intention is to find secondary uses as alternatives to the landfill to prevent further environmental costs such as methane gas emission. Figure 1 depicts the most preferred solutions at the top, with subsequent solutions leading to least preferred at the bottom.

  • Source Reduction: Farmers and retailers can conduct a waste audit and discover areas where they can save money by avoiding unnecessary waste. [23].
  • Feeding Hungry People: Businesses are legally protected from liability under Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act[1][23].Tax deductions are available to businesses that donate food[23]
  • Feeding Animals: food scraps for animals are less expensive than having the food waste delivered to the landfill[23]
  • Industrial Use: anaerobic digestion produces two useful products: biogas and soil amendment[23]
  • Composting: reduces methane, reduces use of chemical fertilizers, and can be used to increase nutrients in soils[23]

Targeted Solutions

Consumers are often unaware of the unsustainable practices that result from the demand created by their everyday habits. As the concern of food loss and food waste rises, efforts to raise awareness become critical as the change in consumer attitudes and demand accelerates markets efforts to respond and, in turn, farmers to respond to markets. With proper exposure and educational actions, consumers could become more willing to deviate from cosmetically perfect fruits and vegetables.

Many consumers shop out of routine patterns, for this reason, it requires a conscious shift in buying habits to ensure more efficient consumption behaviours[5]. Many of the problems created at the consumer level can be solved with more information on how to buy and consume fruits and vegetables. If households spent more time meal planning and creating appropriate shopping lists, they could benefit by spending less money while also reducing the amount of produce and resources wasted. Consumers must also be informed on how to read labels and manage the produce in their fridge before it becomes expired or unusable. Supermarkets could ensure that product information, such as the use of sell-by dates, is clear to help educate and inform purchasers. Supermarkets can also begin to incorporate a variety of produce to widen consumer standards [5].

Because it is not a realistic expectation to eliminate one hundred percent of consumer food waste, citywide compost initiatives ensure more responsible waste management practices. Through proper disposal, composting at a consumer level can contribute to reducing overall emissions. Canadian cities such as Vancouver, Ottawa, and Toronto have seen remarkable landfill waste decreases after implementing a weekly collection of organic waste[24]. Households are much more likely to compost if it's provided for them, since it is a user friendly process that does not require much time or responsibility.

As consumers become more aware of the consequences of food waste, leading to a result in a shift of demand, supermarkets have opportunities to market towards this by showing sustainable practices and building consumer confidence. Supermarkets in Europe are already taking the initiative on reducing food waste, in 2014, Intermarché, the third largest supermarket chain in France led a campaign called "Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables". Giving "ugly" fruits and vegetables a chance, this second-grade produce was given its own aisle with an additional discount of 30 percent. To reassure customers that aesthetic does not determine quality, markets offered juice and soup made from the produce for customers to try. On average, 2.1 tons of fruits and vegetables were sold per store in the first two days.[25]

Donation of edible food that is no longer considered marketable is one way retail can divert food from landfills[1]. Although some businesses are concerned about liability, the Donation of Food Act, in Canada, and the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, in the United States, protect contributors. Donations can be tax deductible giving the incentive to avoid landfill disposal costs. While food donation is becoming a popular alternative to food waste, it is important to remember that reducing the source is the primary goal.

Until demands are modified, there are ways for farmers to change their production methods while still being able to generate enough produce to meet current demands. Producers of fruits and vegetables are usually either local companies or large scale modern producers. The current practices by small companies are usually less harmful to the environment but do not yield a feasible harvest. There have been two methods to address the arising issues of growing demand of agriculture and habitat destruction causing loss of biodiversity. Land sparing suggests intensification of growing crops in denser areas while saving other areas for conservation[26]. This non-integrated approach allows for land to be used strictly for mass production, while still allowing biodiversity in other areas to flourish without the stress of habitat loss. Alternatively, land sharing is a less intense way of farming that mitigates habitat destruction while still producing food[26]. Agriculture will grow in areas where organisms are able to live and therefore share the land together. This concept requires more land but promises less habitat destruction and overall loss of biodiversity.

Remedial action is required throughout the food supply chain. While the participation of all actors in reducing the source of food waste is critical, alternative disposal methods should be utilized to avoid the environmental, economic, and social costs caused by food loss and waste.


Insistence on cosmetically perfect fruits and vegetables is a consumer driven ideal that is costly and unsustainable. "Understanding where and how much food is lost is an important step in reducing waste and increasing the efficiency of food recovery efforts."[4]. Communication and strategizing for effective solutions among farmers, supermarkets, and consumers is key to reducing overall food loss throughout the food supply chain. Consumers drive demand, however, are often unaware of the environmental, economic, and social costs these demands have throughout the food supply chain. In turn, markets will respond to consumer demand if they believe their profits will outweigh the environmental and economic costs. Arable land is being degraded by large-scale agriculture at an alarming rate, which, with additional environmental stresses associated with climate change, will make it very difficult for farmers to produce the necessary food to support our growing population. By utilizing local farms, production can become less environmentally intensive as well as allow consumers to make connections to where their food is coming from.

As large players in the supply chain become aware of the costs of food loss and waste, they will become more inclined to be part of a solution. The primary objective is to reduce the sources of food waste. If food waste does occur, the secondary goal is to keep it out of landfills by using alternative disposal methods such as food donation, animal feed, or composting.

Though there are many benefits of an efficiency based, global food production chain, there are also many consequences. Consumers need to become aware of the unsustainable practices that result from the demand created by their everyday habits. Initiatives in developed countries could help revolutionize how food is produced and consumed globally. If humans wish to continue consuming a variety of produce, steps must be taken to modify attitudes, behaviours, and agricultural processes.


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