Ido not really remember when it all began, but things never happen suddenly…
The European Union started to deregulate the compulsory standardization of fruit and vegetables (making it legal to sell fruit and vegetables without categories).
The crisis came and we were aware of all the waste that was going on around us. Food banks begged us to give them all the products we could that were not “strictly commercial” (and that’s what we did).
And then along came Intermarche and made a business of selling “ugly fruit and vegetables“. Its campaign was a complete success (see video here). It conquered the minds and hearts of consumers (and their pockets).
And of course, all the considerate, well-meaning and even blessed souls rushed to praise, copy, emulate and promote the new initiative that would save our souls and the planet and fill the pockets of farmers and consumers.
According to the famous saying: “… hell is full of good intentions.”
Complex problems rarely have simple solutions whatever pure souls may believe. And I’m sure that the institutions and companies that promote “the sale of ugly fruit and vegetables” do so with the best of intentions, but the fact is that they will seriously harm the producers (farmers) they want to save.
Successive campaigns (by supermarkets, institutions and companies) insist on their arguments. The sale of ugly fruit and vegetables is, they say, beneficial for:
- The environment. More of the crop is used and therefore the scarce and precious resources of the planet used in their production (water, fertilizers, etc.) are used more efficiently.
- Consumers. They can buy these cheaper than “normal” products and therefore save money; besides consuming while doing “good.”
- Farmers. They can sell the “whole crop” and thus achieve more income for their farms and therefore earn more.
From the marketing point of view (reviled, I know), appearance is an expectation of quality that we should not let down. Can anyone imagine making sales grow with, for example, ugly cars, ugly phones, etc.?
But moreover, this movement introduces perverse incentives that hinder the improvement and progress of the efficiency of production systems.
In fruits and vegetables beauty is not just an aesthetic question but also ethical because it generates a process of continuous improvement.The first fruit and vegetables consumed in ancient times were really ugly, poor in size and quality and hardly edible.
It is only human intervention (with an innate aesthetic sense) that has generated a process of improvement that has led us to enjoy vegetable wonders today that were unimaginable in the past.
If we want to serve consumers with more than just price, price and price, we must not stop (or hinder) the process of continuous improvement of fresh fruits and vegetables.
But to explain this, let us begin with the last of the arguments: “All this benefits farmers.” If you have patience and time, see here the link to a Slideshare presentation in which I offer some very simple figures to show that:
“A widespread introduction of “a new segment of ugly fruit and vegetables” is a complete disaster for farmers in general; and especially for those who this measure leaves out of the “ugly fruits” market.
- Farmers accounting for 15% of production would be left out of the business.
- The total market (measured in money) would be reduced by 4.5%.
- Farmers’ income would be reduced by 18%.
- Farmers’ profits would be reduced by 17.60%.
If it is clear that farmers are seriously harmed by this initiative, what do they think will happen to the environment?
If those who care for the production system (farmers) do not earn enough, the investments that make it possible to produce more with fewer resources (efficient irrigation systems, crop protection coverage, improved varieties, new techniques and technologies) will never be undertaken.
If we reduce their income and profits they will have even less money available to continue investing in improvements to the environmental sustainability of the planet.
I suggest that if they are really determined to sell ugly fruit and vegetables because it is “good”, they should do so charging 10% more, not with a price reduction of 30 to 50% (as they do now).
Let’s see if they can show us that this was an initiative designed to help and not to continue bringing down market reference prices.