The Scandalous Supermarkets Waste That Stays Invisible

And what you can do against it

A man lying face-down on a supermarket aisle

Product overload at the supermarket. Might as well just pass out.

Imagine this: You’re a farmer, working your land since many years. You know exactly what your crops need, when to seed and when to harvest. Let’s take broccoli, for example. You work the soil for months, you fertilise to ensure a healthy growth, you battle pests that are trying to destroy your crop, you cope with climate challenges along the way (think of that nasty hail!). You succeed. Your broccoli looks perfect, you think. Finally, you harvest what you have grown for months, carefully selecting the prettiest plants for your picky customer, a big supermarket. You make sure to instruct your workers who wash, package and transport your broccoli plants— only to have it rejected at the supermarket door and sent back on your own expense, before it even hit the shelves. The reason: Not perfect enough.

Food waste is a vastly overlooked driver for climate change

This exact same story happened to Per from Østerkrog Gartneri, a farm in the heart of Denmark that grows organic produce since 2008. Just this week, his broccoli has been rejected at the supermarket (belonging to one of Denmark’s and the Nordic’s biggest retail chain) because apparently, some broccoli heads had small blemishes and were thus considered as not good enough to be sold to their shoppers. As a consequence, they’ve sent the whole order back, without actually taking the trouble to check every crate.

Per adds: “We are so rich in Denmark that we have plenty of everything and can say no to whatever suits us. If we lacked food in Denmark they would never have returned these broccoli”. He’s right. Especially in rich countries like Denmark, which is continiously listed among the most sustainable countries in the world, it is hypocritical that so much food is going to waste without being noticed.

If food waste was a country, it’d be the #3 global greenhouse gas emitter.

According to the United Nation Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), global food waste represents more greenhouse gas emissions than any country in the world except for China and the United States. .

It’s clear that we’re not adequately distributing the food we produce. It’s also clear that the environmental costs in water, energy and space to grow food that is not eaten is more than our environment can take. With an expected global population of 9.7 billion in 2050, we can’t afford to waste valuable resources or food.

It becomes crystal clear that combatting the problem of food waste requires key changes in how food is sold. Supermarkets are discarding hundreds of thousands of tons of food every year and are thus contributing largely to global warming. One of the reasons are because in many Western supermarkets, often only organic sections contain imperfect looking produce (and not even so, like the case of Per from Østerkrog shows), be it curved cucumbers or oranges with bruises on their peel.

What supermarkets base their decision making and reasoning on — meaning what’s “pretty” enough and what is “too ugly” — are the so-called Marketing Standards for fruit & vegetables by the European Union.

Two images of spring onions in boxes, one box having a different label to the other

Class 1 leek is slightly straighter as class 2 leek to the right

All too often the food that’s been rejected is not even obviously wonky, sometimes only millimetres of departure from the norm cause food to go to waste, meaning if an apple is not quite 60mm in diameter it get’s tossed. Instead, supermarkets take these universally recognised standards as the reason to reject tons of food while there is only a few pieces that would need to be sorted out. According to a BBC article, 30–40% of all produce is tossed because of “cosmetic flaws”.

That’s because these big retailers are so big they can afford to sell only a proportion of “units” and discard the rest. Waste — hundreds of thousands of tonnes of it — is built into the system. And dumping thousands of tons of perfectly fine food is the most shocking thing.

Our perception of quality is causing food waste

Through years and years of being used to only seeing normed fruit and veggies on our fresh produce shelves, we’ve become blind for the creations of mother nature. A three legged carrot is not a product of gene manipulation, as we have overheard some people wonder when presenting them our crooked, ugly Eat Grim vegetables, no, it’s quite the opposite. It’s all natural because it’s ugly by nature. Get used to it and take a bite!

Also, the endless trimming of produce is causing waste. To make produce fit into the evenly neat packages that can be stacked high on the shelves, it is assumed that roughly 20% of the whole vegetable is wasted when trimmed. Twenty percent.

In addition, “sell by”, “consume by” and “best before” tags used by stores are confusing and often bear no relation to the actual expiration date of a product.

Not at last, the sheer abundance and year-round availability of fresh produce (think of strawberries for Christmas when you live in Denmark) is robbing us of the ability to identify when a fruit and vegetable is in season (and thus tasty!) and what to eat first before it’s going bad — because you might as well go to the store and buy this mango over and over again when it turns bad before you manage to eat it.

How You can help reduce supermarket food waste

Surely, supermarkets have a large role to play and a long way to go until food waste is truly tackled. But there are things we as consumers can do to help force them into the right direction.

Use your power and opt for ugly.

Our purchasing power is strong and we can use it for the advantage of reducing supermarket food waste. Since decades, supermarkets have been rejecting “ugly” produce. Why? They claim that we, their customers, don’t want misshapen, too big or small or discoloured fresh produce. They think! Speak for yourself and use your power and opt for ugly.

Buy food that supports the farmers directly

Some of you might have heard the term Community Supported Agriculture, short CSA. CSA is a system that connects the producer and consumers within the food system more closely by allowing the consumer to subscribe to the harvest of a certain farm or group of farms. That way, you’ll purchase your food directly from the farms, thus cutting out many middle men that shorten the income of the farms. If there is no CSA in your hood, check out other options that also establish a close and transparent relationship with the growers, such as farmers markets or urban farms.

Model of when different fruits are in season

Buy what’s in season

Eat what’s in season to guarantee tastiness, low environmental impact and freshness, as the produce won’t travel thousands of miles in cooled trucks to get to you. If you’re not a fresh produce pro, stay alert to what’s in abundance at your local supermarket at the moment and available to a comparably affordable price. Also, check this cool produce calendar by Russell Van Kraayenburg :)

Buy minimally packaged fruit & veg

That way, you can avoid trimmed produce, but you’ll ultimately learn what to eat first. Packaging has of course a purpose — and that is to keep your fresh produce fresh longer. However, there are alternatives to plastic wrap, such as keeping your produce in containers in the fridge, in beeswax paper or by using biodegradable packaging material. Buying non-packaged food also avoids overbuying, because you will have to eat these greens before they turn bad. It’s a good way to use what you have in the fridge instead of buying more and more.

So tell us, what steps are you taking towards a waste-free future?

PS: Our ugly fruit & veg box, the Eat Grim box, contains ugly-by nature and surplus fruit and veggies. What’s in our box is 100% organic and biodynamic certified, comes with minimal packaging, recycled wooden box and sourced directly from a network of awesome farmers located in Denmark and the rest of Europe. So far, we’ve saved over 50 tons of food and created over 250.000 DKK income for farmers.

If you live in the Greater Copenhagen area, subscribe to our box today and quit shopping veggies in the supermarket — because now you know why!