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Cambridge Global Food Security

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A Week of Food Waste

Last week was filled with food waste— £250 million worth of it in the UK, and multiple events around Cambridge to discuss the issue. Rosemary Ostfeld blogs on the Cambridge Science Festival’s Inglorious Fruit and Veg seminar.

Cambridge Science Festival’s Inglorious Fruit and Veg

by Rosemary Ostfeld

On March 16th, 2017, the Cambridge Global Food Security Initiative, Cambridge Forum for Sustainability and the Environment, and CambPlants co-hosted "Inglorious Fruit and Veg" for the Cambridge International Science Festival. Bev Sedley, the Chair of Cambridge Sustainable Food, convened the discussion featuring Charlie Kisby (Innovation Director at G's Growers), Greg Colebrook (Farm Manager at Green's Farming), and Professor Ottoline Leyser, Director of Cambridge-Sainsbury Laboratory. The critical question of the evening was: "What do we do with wonky fruit and veg?"

 Kisby began by explaining the various places within the supply chain where food is commonly wasted, including the field, pack house, distribution network, supermarket, and in our own refrigerators. Although celebrity chefs have recently publicized wonky fruits and veg, consuming wonky fruit and veg is not the silver bullet solution to greater food waste challenges. In a retail setting, there tend to be two ways to sell wonky produce - 1) set up a specific line of wonky veg, or 2) relax the specification for the primary product line and accept that aesthetic defects may come through. In fact, demand for wonky fruits and veg can lead to the devaluation of high quality products to try to fill the demand of specific wonky veg lines. Kisby explained that the largest challenge relates to fluctuations in availability and demand. The mismatch between supply and demand creates a system in which growers will frequently overgrow so they know they will have enough. By working closely with retailers, growers can try to forecast demand better and avoid wastage. Consumers should also value seasonality and availability rather than demanding foods all the time.

Next, Colebrook spoke about the challenges of meeting supermarket and consumer specifications. This brought up a chicken vs. egg dilemma - is it retailers who have created the aesthetic standards that consumers have now grown accustomed to? Or are retailers attempting to meet the demands of consumers? Colebrook spoke of the success story of beetroots - in Green's beetroot supply chain there is very little waste because it is used in dips, crisps, is juiced, is shredded, and is used in cattle feed due to the many end markets. Utilization of all aspects of the crops helps to reduce waste, a model that could perhaps be used for other vegetables.

Finally, Leyser discussed the importance of determining the key drivers influencing the system, and figuring out which interventions have the potential to shift the system to be more environmentally sustainable. She stressed that the collective action of consumers can drive change. If people work together, they can have a surprising amount of influence on industry. However, care must also be taken to ensure that food waste is minimized at home.

Following the speakers' talks, the audience was invited to comment and ask questions. Topics that came up during the conversation included building awareness on ways to store certain types of foods so they would last longer, participation in gleaning, and the complications arising because of the myriad of labels such as "sell by," "use by," and "best before." The final comments of the evening related to the need to change our food culture to one that places a higher value on food, and reduces the tendency of over-purchasing.