The great wonky veg debacle

Wonky veg has been all over social media recently since ASDA began selling their Wonky Veg boxes. ASDA is now promising to roll these out nationwide. I first became aware of the great wonky veg waste problem through Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the BBC show Hugh’s War on Waste. The problem has been that supermarkets will only sell the most regular-shaped vegetables, whilst nature stubbornly insists on producing vegetables of all shapes. This results in farmers having to destroy large parts of their crops because they simply cannot get the supermarkets to sell the “wonky” vegetables. Bad news for the farmers and bad news for a planet in which there are people starving.

So, everyone is excited to see the supermarkets beginning to move on this issue. However, at this point I want to sound the alarm bells. This latest move could prove disastrous. The trouble with demanding that supermarkets sell wonky veg is that we fail to see the real problem, which is more about overproduction than about wonky vegetables. The real problem is that people in the UK eat far less veg than the farmers produce. So a lot of veg has to be destroyed regardless. That it happens to be the wonky veg which is destroyed is almost a side-issue.

I say “almost” because I have a suspicion that the overproduction is at least partly a result of a long-term process of demanding ever more regular shaped vegetables by the supermarkets. Year after year, to get ahead in the vegetable farming game, farmers have had to grow larger and larger crops in order to have enough regular veg to beat the competition. And so, year on year, the amount of waste has increased. At least, this is what I suspect.

But to focus only on supermarkets not selling wonky veg is to focus only on the cause and, at that, a long-term cause. The problem is not the cause. The problem is the effect, which is that people in the UK eat far less veg than farmers in the UK produce. Short of exporting the surplus, it must end up being destroyed. (And, given the unhelpfully strong Pound, export is unlikely to be an option).

So, now let’s think about what ASDA’s Wonky Veg boxes are going to do. ASDA claims their wonky veg is 30% cheaper than “standard lines”. Great news for consumers who don’t mind the shape of their veg: we can now spend 30% less. But here’s the question: will the consumers who are buying wonky veg continue to buy as much “standard” veg as they bought before? i.e. will we, the populace, respond to wonky veg by increasing our total consumption of veg? If not, then this whole thing is a great, cosmic kick in the teeth to the farmers whose “standard” veg market will collapse as they undersell themselves by 30% with wonky veg. If getting by was hard when farmers were at least able to sell your “standard” veg at standard prices, it will be impossible when some of that market is replaced by a 30% discount market.

So, rock, hard place. Don’t sell wonky veg and we propagate the cause of the food waste problem. Sell it and the food waste problem becomes sudden death for the farmers. What are we to do? Two things spring to mind: first, changes like this must be rolled out slowly. Macro-economies take time to evolve (whilst micro-economies can be very flexible). It takes a whole season to grow a crop. Farmers need to know at least a year in advance what sort of sales patterns to expect. The cause acted on a long-term basis, removing the cause needs to be a long-term project as well. So it would be good if ASDA rolled out wonky veg on a limited basis, which increased year on year. But to roll out to the whole nation at once is either deeply naive or criminally cynical (let’s hope it’s the former). So, now’s the time for us to say “well done ASDA, but slow down”.

Second, and very simply, the actual problem could be addressed. Let’s start eating more veg. By all means buy wonky veg, but make sure you still spend as much on veg as you did before. That means that if we’re buying cheaper veg, we have to buy more of it. But this is the only way to buy wonky veg that ensures that farmers will still get as much income from their crops as they did before.

It’s our choice: what are we going to do?

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