Human Food Ideals & Nature
Quick disclaimer that this post is more candidly thoughtful than most here. The thoughts within are more inquisitive based on the intersection of the human food system and nature rather than an analytical deep dive. I had been thinking about how "ugly food" services factor into that system and this is an attempt to stitch together a big picture from tangential, interconnected thoughts.
Hope you enjoy it!
Imagine yourself walking through your local grocery store. You're looking for some fruits and vegetables to bring home for a week's worth of meals and you're confronted with a plethora of delightful options. Yet, despite the brilliant display of colors and plenty before you, you're probably still going to pick up and put down at least a few of them before putting anything in your basket. There's this feeling while you're picking your groceries that out of these options, there is some perfect pick for you in the moment.
And, hey, maybe this is true. Maybe you're planning on making a fruit salad in a few days and you don't want the ripest fruit in the batch. It's going to be sitting on your countertop for a few days, and you'd like to account for that. Beyond that bit of planning, though, what is it that's making us be so selective about the food on display. It all looks good enough to prepare meals and cook with. Why are we doing this?
You might be thinking that this is an instinctual human behavior, ensuring we're finding the food that's best for us. This is a correct thought. Humans, as with all animals, do need to go through a certain trial and error when being introduced to an environment. Before we knew which food to display, we needed to know which foods we could actually eat. To some extent, this selection behavior could be a residual habit of our ancestral gathering selves. But, in this environment, it's not about whether the food is edible. Beyond that ripeness point, our selection is one primarily of luxury. We're looking for an "ideal" food. So where does this concept come from?
Let's dive in!
We've established already that when we're trying to find food for ourselves today, it's not about finding something that is or isn't edible. Once humans consistently found the foods we could eat that the Earth generates on its own, our species was on a bit of a mission to increase its abundance. A species quickly becoming the dominant species on the planet is going to have a lot of mouths to feed!
We might think that this race for abundance, this tinkering with nature for a larger yield of food, is a relatively recent thing, but we've been at this for a long time. These days, genetically modifying plants is something associated with lab work, but the truth of the matter is we've been genetically modifying our food for as long as we've been growing it ourselves. We just worked on the Earth's time, cultivating hybrids of hybrids until we have the food as we know it today. Take for example this wild carrot.
Basically, as soon as the first humans tried this root and realized it was edible, we no longer needed to select for that criteria. But this plant is not the most appetizing of foods, right? Sure it may be edible, but beyond its coloring and form, it's also rather small. So humans bred this plant to the point that it is today. Not the Earth's carrot, but the human ideal of the Earth's carrot But, alright, we've made a carrot significantly larger and capable of growing with a higher chance of yielding results. That's a good thing, right? In theory, it should.
So, compared to the original, all our modern food looks amazing, yet we're still comparing and contrasting these ideal foods while we're doing our grocery shopping. We're still trying to select for an ideal among a buffet of brilliant examples of humanity's interpretation of the Earth's bounty. We've become so abstracted, so removed, from what that original was that we're not comparing what was to what is, but by comparing a bunch of perfectly good food to other perfectly good food.
What's more, there is a further abstraction we don't tend to think about: when we're gathering food at the store, we're not seeing the entire yield.
A supermarket or grocery store is not going to buy all of a farmer's yield for their shelves. They only buy produce that they think will look "ideal" to their customers. Most food exhibiting odd shapes, being too big, or too small don't even see the shelf in their lifetime. By the time we're picking our food, we're not just selecting for the best of a yield, of the entirety of our modern interpretation of produce. We're selecting for an ideal among a bunch of items already having met the ideal for the supermarket. There is actually a large amount of perfectly good food that isn't considered marketable by the grocery store that doesn't make it in front of any customer's eyes.
Well, this is an interesting turn of events. Our reasonably arbitrary selection process is already filtered by the store's arbitrary standards for what any given produce should look like. We only consider a fraction of a fraction of the full yield of a farmer's crop. What happens to the rest of that yield?
A Market for Ugly Food
The first thing that might jump into your mind is "if we're not seeing it, that's a lot of wasted food, right?" And you wouldn't be too far from the mark. Farmer's do have to grow a significant amount of food just to deal with the picky selection of the supermarket, their highest bidder. The farmer is not necessarily in control of how their crops end up looking. If they only grew what they anticipated to sell, they wouldn't make enough to survive because of this "ideal" marketed by grocery stores.
But, where there looks to be money left on the table in a relatively untapped market, you can bet someone will find it. And find it they did with the recent surge in "ugly food" services. Not that the service is ugly, just that the food they sell doesn't meet the supermarket's ideal. These kinds of services have been popping up a lot, being able to pay farmers for their excess crops that the big grocery stores won't buy. The farmer gets to capitalize on more of their hard work and the food finds a home with someone who wants it. Seems like a win-win situation.
The thing is, these new ugly food services aren't the only people in the market for these misshapen crops. For a while now, there have been businesses buying those foods when their product doesn't depend on the whole food looking artisanal. Think of your bags of shredded carrots, cans of diced tomatoes, or fruit salad bowls. As long as the food, itself, is edible, it doesn't matter what it looked like when it was whole. These products understand that even ugly food is good food. And it's been working for decades.
So these ugly food services are doing something here. They're helping normalize that food not looking like the supermarket ideal is still plenty good to eat. But they're not necessarily breaking new ground in buying a farmer's ugly crops. They're a new participant in an existing system, another buyer in the market.
A Faulty Food System
Let's take a step back and look at the big picture of these scenario.
Humans learned how to modify food to feed more people. When gathering food became a service businesses could offer, food needed to meet a certain level of "artisanship" defined by humans, but a roulette left to the whims of the Earth. Farmers need to produce huge yields to account for there being a sizable percentage of crops that won't sell to the highest bidder. Other businesses, seeing profits left on the floor, give farmers a smaller kickback on less ideal crops, helping them make use of more of their yield. Yet despite these systems, countries participating in these systems have massive food waste problems. Why?
I'd like to posit that even when other business buy the farmer's not-supermarket-ideal crops, that is a benefit in a system designed to grow too much food. Farmers have to grow too much food because the highest bidder is very picky, and if they can make money on the crops not sold to the highest bidder, all the more reason to keep doing what they're doing.
Another angle of this system is that these ugly food services are still selling to people of some level of affluence. They're often marketed as an alternative to buying from the grocery store. But if we think about it, grocery stores already have massive waste issues, not being able to sell a lot of what is put on store shelves. If people purchase food from these services, that seems to leave more food on the shelves that will ultimately go unsold and thrown into the dumpster. Shifting the lens on "who's food is wasted" doesn't necessarily solve the food waste problem.
Giving the excess food to charities, food banks, and shelters is arguably the best way to ensure food is not wasted. It's not as lucrative, but to not waste food, we can't just shift where some people buy their food, but instead distribute that excess to those who need it and otherwise can't access it. What's interesting is that prior to some of these ugly food services cropping up, farmers would donate their excess yield in this way to local communities. Now, less of their yield goes to those needing it most because there are people wanting to purchase a slightly cheaper option, who were already capable of buying the "ideal" at the grocery store. The result of this competition is people getting food from a source other than the grocery store, leaving more waste from the store, and taking what could have gone to those in need in the process. All a result of food not meeting an ideal set by a small number of people marketing at a grocery store.
Trying New Things
All this probably sounds like I'm bashing these ugly food services, and to an extent, I guess that's the case. I'm fine with trying to find solutions to our food system problems in a way that fits the rules of our existing society. It's just that these services leave a lot to be desired from a perspective of needed change. They don't necessarily introduce a ton of harm on those benefiting from farmers' excess crop yield, but in the case of those farmers who would donate the food, they are doing some harm. And since they do market to people who already shop at grocery stores, it's entirely likely that they're simply causing grocery stores to waste more, moving the waste from post-yield to post-shelf-life. Either way, the food is wasted.
This isn't to say they shouldn't exist. We should not desire to live in a society where new ways to do something are diminished simply because something is already doing that thing. That's how we end up with monopolies. If these services want to break the foothold of the conventional grocery store, all the power to them. I think that's ultimately what they're doing. They aren't reducing waste so much as shifting where and when the food is potentially wasted by marketing their service to the same people who frequent grocery stores. They may have a better mindset about waste, though, and in directly competing with big stores, could end up shifting the expectations of how stores deal with food post-shelf-life.
And it is good to try new things, which these do indeed try. We just also have to keep an eye on the bigger picture, understanding that our arbitrary need to find an "ideal" food causes a lot of downstream effects both for human society and to the environment. These forced massive crop yields take a toll on our soils and water sources. Right-sizing our crop yield and understanding that ugly food is still good food is a step to reducing waste and sustainably using the planet. Maybe that will be a topic for a future Human Nature!
So I invite you to take a step back from time to time and think of how these small changes impact our larger systems and, ultimately, our world. Doing so may lead to the next big idea to result in the systemic changes we need.
~ And, as always, don't forget to keep wondering ~
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