Up to 40% of fresh produce in Malaysia is thrown after harvest because it is considered 'ugly'


About 40% of crops in many Malaysian farms are discarded after harvest and thrown along road sides, rivers or even forest areas because they do not meet industry cosmetic standards. — THE LOST FOOD PROJECT

In farms across the world, massive quantities of fresh vegetables and fruits are often thrown away right after they are harvested simply because they suffer from the same blighted fate: they don’t look right.

In the United Kingdom for instance, an article in The Guardian in 2013 indicated that up to two-fifths of a crop of fruit or vegetable is discarded because it is considered ugly. In the United States, estimates show that the probable figures are close to 50%.

Malaysia is certainly not immune to this demand for perfect-looking produce. In fact, many farmers indicate that about 40% of crops never leave the farm and are instead thrown away once they are sorted and graded, simply for cosmetic reasons – whether that is blemishes, discolouration, cracks, imperfect surfaces, irregular shapes, holes or colours that do not match consumer expectations.

This is despite the fact that all this produce is perfectly edible and have the same nutritive value as their more aesthetically blessed brethren.

“Yes, unfortunately it is very true. Most of the standards are put upon by supermarkets and driven by consumers.

“One of our farmers used to grow French beans and cucumbers and he told me his throwaway rate was 40% for wonky vegetables. But this isn’t just happening in Malaysia; it happens all over the world too,” says Leisa Tyler.

Tyler is a former food journalist and board member of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants who now helms Weeds & More, which operates a series of farms in Cameron Highlands that grow Western-style vegetables like kohlrabi, heirloom tomatoes, baby leek and fennel, using organic principles.

If fresh vegetables have odd shapes or weird sizes, they often end up being discarded for fear of not meeing indusry standards. — THE LOST FOOD PROJECTIf fresh vegetables have odd shapes or weird sizes, they often end up being discarded for fear of not meeing indusry standards. — THE LOST FOOD PROJECT

While Tyler runs one of the rare farming initiatives in Malaysia that sells everything it grows (mostly to high-end restaurants and hotels), food waste is prevalent in many conventional farms.

Most Malaysian farmers use a grading system set by the Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority (FAMA) and often end up discarding the lowest grade vegetables at the farm level because they feel there is no ready market for it.

“Usually in the market, you can find grade A and grade B vegetables, but grade C vegetables (determined by factors like deformity in shape and size) are usually dumped because they don’t fetch good returns.

“So farmers reject the products because the market will also reject it, so there is no point wasting transportation costs and other costs on these produce,” explains Chay Ee Mong, the secretary of the Cameron Highlands Vegetable Growers Association.

“It is still edible, but there is no choice for farmers because consumers won’t accept this kind of produce,” adds Chay.

Interestingly, if beauty was not an issue, crop wastage would be nearly negligible. Tyler for instance, only generates about 2% wastage on her farms while Chay estimates that wastage on many farms would be under 10% if looks were not a factor.

What sort of vegetables have a high reject rate?

According to Chay, leafy vegetables like spinach, choy sum and kangkong are subject to the sort of merciless scrutiny that even beauty pageant contestants would find unendurable. In the end, only the greens that are intact and devoid of any unsightly holes end up making the cut, with the rest binned.

“Some of these leafy vegetables when they are attacked by pests and have a lot of holes, people will look at it and say ‘Oh, it’s not nice’. But it’s actually edible – since insects can eat it, why not humans?” he reasons.

This is a sentiment shared by Tyler, who has seen her spinach plants thrown away by a supermarket, because it failed to live up to conventional ideals.

Although there is nothing wrong with leafy vegetables with holes or discolouration, they are often thrown away by farmers and wholesale markets as consumers are unlikely to purchase them. — LEISA TYLERAlthough there is nothing wrong with leafy vegetables with holes or discolouration, they are often thrown away by farmers and wholesale markets as consumers are unlikely to purchase them. — LEISA TYLER

“When we had spinach leaves with slug marks, they were literally throwing away whole plants because of slug marks on one leaf. I think a lot of it comes down to perception – what we think is pretty,” she says.

Tomatoes are also often discarded at farms after harvest, especially if they have blistered surfaces or are simply too small.

“Small ones will be rejected or if they are cracked or the shape doesn’t look perfect or there are any signs of attacks by pests or disease – consumers simply won’t accept these tomatoes,” explains Chay.

Tyler meanwhile says tomatoes often have cracks on them if they are overwatered and although nothing is wrong with them, they are typically discarded for this reason.

Other common vegetables and fruits that are frequently discarded at the farm level for failing to meet industry beauty standards include chillies, cucumbers, French beans, cabbage, zucchini, bananas and dragonfruit.

So what happens to these discarded vegetables and fruits when they are deemed not good enough for the market? According to Tyler and Chay, there are no proper disposal grounds for these vast quantities of rejected fruits and vegetables, so farmers often end up throwing them wherever is convenient.

“In Cameron Highlands, most farmers would throw it into the forest or rivers – it’s just the culture. Sometimes they just throw it over the side of the road,” says Tyler.

According to Chay, a tiny percentage of farmers utilise these wonky vegetables and end up composting it.

Tomatoes have a high reject rate on farms, for various superficial reasons including shape, size and cracks on the skin. — THE LOST FOOD PROJECTTomatoes have a high reject rate on farms, for various superficial reasons including shape, size and cracks on the skin. — THE LOST FOOD PROJECT

“Very few will replough it into their fields. They will do their own simple composting, but it’s not so common here, because we are now facing a very critical shortage of labour, and to do extra composting requires extra manpower,” says Chay.

In the long run though, composting realistically offers a plethora of benefits for farmers and is the best way to utilise these odd-looking crops, especially if they are not being channelled to end users one way or another.

“When you turn it into compost, you feed it back into the soil. Compost is full of nutrients that plants would need and has a high moisture content, so it can help to retain water, improve the product quality and decrease strong reliance on pesticide,” says Sudy Yeo, a circular economy advocate who says when composting becomes the norm, it will eventually help farmers save the costs associated with pesticide use.

The cycle repeats itself

When produce is discarded because it is deemed unappealing for consumers, this triggers a series of events that set off a repeated, vicious pattern.

First, it continues to feed the narrative that fresh produce must look perfect, especially if retailers continue to respond to consumer demands for high-quality produce by shielding them from wonky-looking produce.

Consumers can only buy what they see and if they continue to be spoilt with an array of idealistic produce, it just perpetuates the myth that all produce is created equal and drives expectations to unrealistic points, forcing farmers to cater to these demands by discarding produce all over again.

This in turn will also create an even bigger wedge between urban consumers and fresh produce. Many modern shoppers have little to no understanding of how fresh produce is grown and farmed and this disconnect continues to be shaped and moulded by the ideals set on shelves and in markets i.e. everything seemingly looking symmetrical and uniform.

Consumers have become accustomed to seeing perfect-looking vegetables on supermarket shelves, but this thinking has to change in order to stem the tide of food wastage generated for cosmetic reasons. — FilepicConsumers have become accustomed to seeing perfect-looking vegetables on supermarket shelves, but this thinking has to change in order to stem the tide of food wastage generated for cosmetic reasons. — Filepic

“In the past, when people grew food themselves, they knew what nature was and didn’t have high expectations. Nature isn’t perfect, so how can produce be perfect? But now everyone lives in cities and goes to supermarkets and supermarkets are really removed from farmers, so I think this feeds this idea of perfection, which is also tied to what is Instagrammable,” says Tyler.

The other side of this coin is the loss of potential income for farmers. Imagine throwing out 40% of your hard-earned harvest for no other reason than the idea that no one wants it. If looks were not a part of this equation, farmers could easily earn at least 30% more each time they harvest produce.

Also, discarding vegetables comes at a price. Quite literally, in the sense that it drives up the price of vegetables and fruits.

“The wastage drives cost up, so that pushes the price of vegetables up, because the margin comes down, so the whole thing is a little bit wacky,” says Tyler.

Farmers work extremely hard to grow produce but end up having to discard a substantial amount of it because there is no viable market, so there is also a loss of potential income from this waste. — FilepicFarmers work extremely hard to grow produce but end up having to discard a substantial amount of it because there is no viable market, so there is also a loss of potential income from this waste. — Filepic

Perhaps the biggest tangible blot generated by the cycle of consumer demand and how it co-relates to ugly vegetables is the unimaginable waste created for purely superficial reasons.

Fresh produce is grown with care by farmers but ultimately do not end up serving a purpose. These sidelined vegetables and fruits don’t feed humans or animals or even fertilise the earth – they are simply discarded and left to rot, which is a tragedy in itself.

What can be done

Change can only happen with education – consumers are the biggest end users of fresh produce and need to know that the cosmetic make-up of produce doesn’t affect its nutritional value, edibility or for that matter – appeal.

In many other countries around the world, this consumer education has happened by way of rebranding exercises in the form of ugly vegetable or wonky vegetable campaigns, which have been gaining traction for years now. In many instances, it is often supermarkets who have been leading this charge for change.

Chay says most farmers do not have the manpower to turn the wasted wonky vegetables into compost. — FilepicChay says most farmers do not have the manpower to turn the wasted wonky vegetables into compost. — Filepic

In the UK for instance, supermarkets like Sainsbury’s and Tesco have relaxed their cosmetic standards and nowactively sell wonky vegetables. In Sweden, less good-looking produce is sold at a reduced price at grocery giant Coop while in France, food chain Intermarche has run massive campaigns to educate the public about this produce.

In Malaysia, there doesn’t seem to be a tangible campaign of a similar nature but Tyler believes that local supermarkets hold the power to court this change.

“Of course there should be conversation ideally to change this narrative and supermarkets should be driving this conversation and perhaps big supermarkets should be taking a stand,” she says.

Chay believes that if retailers start selling less good-looking produce on their shelves (even if it is at a reduced rate), consumers can then make purchasing decisions for themselves, whether that is based on aesthetics or not.

“As long as the nutritional value of the product is not affected and the price is reasonable, why not? For instance, consumers can go to a supermarket and buy bananas for RM6 per kg. But if they go to a normal grocery story and they are selling wonky bananas for RM3 – it just gives them more options on how to spend their money. The decision of what to buy will then be up to them,” he says.

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