A blight on us for a perfectly fruity fetish
Our obsession with perfect fruit is a symbol of our consumer culture and greed.
When it comes to the critical problems facing humanity, there is one issue that does not command our attention the way it should, but in its own quiet way is every bit as compelling and troublesome as climate change or the global financial crisis. It's our flagrant abuse of fruit and vegetables.
Sounds like a bit of a parody, doesn't it? But the fate of the banana, the tomato and the carrot have a lot more to do with our environmental and economic woes than many would at first suspect. How we grow, depict and treat produce in the West is a stark representation of the pernickety, self-destructive consumer society we have become.
For some years, the major supermarkets have behaved like a phalanx of door-bitches fronting exclusive nightclubs. They have decreed that the fruit and vegetables they sell must meet stringent standards of appearance, or no entry.
Although this quest for perfect-looking produce is driven by what customers want, it raises some serious agricultural, not to mention ethical, problems.
The issue has been festering for some time at the Victorian Farmers Federation, which in December doled out some home truths about consumer expectations. A frustrated Andrew Broad, the federation's president, said the expectations were unrealistic and growers were going broke.
The problem is simply stated: people only want to buy produce that looks attractive. Any fruit and veg with a few blemishes or a slightly unorthodox shape are shunned. In some cases, growers have had whole crops rejected by supermarket buyers.
The banana provides an instructive example. In Queensland, Australian Banana Growers Council chief executive Tony Heidrich recently admitted to a high level of wastage that he described as "disappointing".
A more apposite d-word would be disgraceful. At least 100,000 tonnes of bananas are deemed not attractive enough for public consumption and are sent to the shredder and buried. Unattractive fruit won't sell. Customers will only take home the perfect specimens.
This objectification of fruit satirically echoes many debates feminists have had about society's objectification of women. In the quest for some totally artificial construct of an ideal, many people are overlooking the single most important fact - that it's what's on the inside that matters.
Where is it written that wonky looking fruit isn't good for you? It is frequently remarked upon that the flavour of those perfect-looking tomatoes in the supermarket is perfectly bland. Any home gardener will tell you that a rough-looking home-grown tomato, blemished though it may be, is utterly delicious next to an insipid, store-bought example.
This is mildly amusing until you think about the implications. Fruit that fails the appearance test is rejected; thrown away or ploughed back into the ground.
This happens to up to 25 per cent of all produce.
When you consider how many people on earth are starving, and that industries are looking to minimise carbon footprints, it is totally unforgivable to throw away carefully grown and tended food just because it isn't pretty enough.
But human behaviour is often perverse. It's frequently said that what the West spends on dieting could, if re-directed, end starvation in the world. Our inexorable quest for perfection - for beautiful bodies, fabulous homes, shiny cars, breathtaking holidays, perfect meals - is largely responsible for the pollution and damage we have wreaked on earth. You don't have to be Al Gore to apprehend that our lifestyle is screwing up the planet.
It's enough to make one pessimistic. What hope is there to solve complex human problems when half the planet is so hung up on appearances that it refuses to eat food that doesn't have the right look?
It's not just the fault of supermarket managers. Until last July, the European Union had set specific cosmetic standards for most produce and oddly shaped fruit and veg were effectively banned from sale. The prohibition has been lifted largely because of the global recession, which has partially recalibrated some of our commercial decisions.
But supermarkets worldwide still insist on crazy notions of perfection and, of course, they blame us, the customer. We've asked for it. No one really knows just how much food around the world is rejected and wasted in this way. It could be billions of dollars worth each year. Is Western culture even more decadent than anyone imagined?
Under the pretext of preserving the planet's finite resources, the media and government often try to whip us into a frenzy of guilt and accountability. We're implored to get roof insulation, to invest in solar power, to recycle our rubbish, to ride a bike to work, to buy drought-resistant plants and let the lawn die. Tell it to the turnips. Until society learns to value and manage food responsibly, what's the point?