Food Aesthetics? Not So Appealing

fast food
Food security has been one of the most hotly debated topics over the last few years.

I want you to recall how we buy fresh produce like fruits and vegetables at the stores. Unbeknownst to oneself we spend time picking the best looking, symmetric, colourful and large ones. This is so natural to the process that trying to recall it might seem amusing to the reader. However, that is unknown to many is that this sublime looking process leads to some critical issues in the supply chain.

It would not be an exaggeration if I claim that food which is a basic necessity for sustenance of life through this process has been transformed to a kind of Veblen Good where value is derived from its role as a status symbol rather than of any intrinsic value.      

Food is given utmost importance by various governments and international bodies. These organizations, spread across the globe, are relentlessly working towards the goal of ensuring the availability of food to every human being. Their endeavors can be grouped into 3 overarching categories:

  • Ensuring adequate production

  • Creating efficient supply chains

  • Access to food

Food security has been one of the most hotly debated topics over the last few years. Dwindling natural resources, climate change consequences, and an arduous (almost) two years with a global pandemic has left most organisations grappling for a solution or some certainty of what the future holds. In fact during last year's International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste, the UN and its partners pressed on the importance of managing food loss and waste. Warning that failure to do so could lead to a greater decline in food security as well as natural resources, while further accelerating the number of people whose food and nutrition security are at risk. This number which was at 690 million people, was further exacerbated by COVID-19 to an additional 132 million.     

Though discussed frequently and at length, this problem needs to be addressed at the grass-root level. The State of Food and Agriculture, a report circulated in 2019 by the UN body, Food and Agriculture Organisation, focused on the theme of “Moving Forward on Food Loss and Waste Reduction''. A report published by the Indian committee on “Doubling Farmers Income” also highlights this issue as one of the major factors affecting the earnings of farmers.

Most of these discussions primarily concentrate on the “harder” aspects of food wastage, especially with respect to perishable items like fruits and vegetables. It includes improper handling or storage of produce and the inability to sell due to poor market linkages, among others. The alarming levels of waste generated make it imperative that we explore the improvements in these areas. The government along with the private sector is working towards eradicating such inefficiencies. However, considerable work is still required to reach the optimum levels in India. 

While discussing these issues, it is crucial to highlight a “softer” aspect that deals with consumer preference. What I have observed during the 6 years of running an Agritech company is that the demand for aesthetically appealing vegetables and fruits is driving a lot of waste in the entire supply chain. There are two dimensions to this waste. The first is the wastage due to the non-consumption of food. This can be vividly seen in almost all grocery stores where we can find crates filled with items that found no buyers.

The other aspect is not very obvious. It is about the reduced remuneration provided to farmers for produce that is fit for consumption but doesn’t match the aesthetic preferences. For example, tomatoes that are not of a desired shape or size, even after being perfectly fine for consumption, fetch a much lower price in the market. There is little connection between the aesthetics and taste of the produce. Colour and smell, to some extent, give an idea of the maturity/ripeness and thereby help in determining the expected taste. Apart from these, the other parameters have almost no bearing on the taste or nutrition during consumption.

The 2019 “The State of food and agriculture” report divides the waste into two categories namely food loss and food waste. Food loss refers to the waste till the retail level, whereas food waste talks about the waste at the retailer and consumer level. As supply chains tend to align towards consumer preferences, the divisions are interlinked and cannot be seen in isolation. While some aspects of food waste like overbuying by the consumer or wastage at home may not have much impact, the aesthetic preference does have a very strong impact on the supply chain. It is flowing back into the system to ensure that the waste at the retailer end is minimised. As a result, sorting and grading start from the farm and occur at every stage in the supply chain. The players at the initial stages of the supply chain have adopted methods, though not perfect, to reduce the waste at the retailer end. Under such measures, the less appealing items are often dumped or sold at lower prices, ultimately transforming food waste into food loss.

This leads to a situation where the farmer’s income is not representative of the produce, instead, it is a ratio of its varying quality. While the “best” quality part of the goods may fetch a decent price, the “lower” ones face defeat in this area. Sometimes, the “lower” quality produce may not even fetch the cost price for the farmer. Often these products do not even reach the market. Report of the Committee on Doubling Farmers’ Income has estimated that about 36% of the combined fruits and vegetables produced fail to enter the market as the farmer is unable to sell them. A larger part of the loss may be due to issues like market linkages and cold storage, but aesthetics also forms a significant factor. This leads to a scenario where the overall income of the farmer is much lower than the indicative prices. Improvements in horticultural practices are attempting to reduce this gap and match the consumer’s aesthetic preferences.

Since we are dealing with natural products, it would not be wrong to assume that technological intervention may not offer a more desirable alternative. Some unscrupulous elements have also used this as an arbitrage opportunity by using chemicals to make the products pass the aesthetic test and thereby trying to earn profits at the cost of customers’ health.

There is also a class element in play, where the visually appealing produce is subjected to premier pricing and targeted towards higher income groups through online or other modern trade formats. On the other hand, the remaining are sold to lower-income groups at reduced rates. This might seem logical from the perspective of affordability and market economics. However, I am reminded of what the great sociologist Pierre Bourdieu said about taste in his book, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, “Taste is first and foremost distaste, disgust and visceral intolerance of the taste of others.” Once the vegetable is cut and cooked or added to a salad, there is no way one can relate the taste of the food to the aesthetics of the produce, making the differentiation superficial.

With supply chains getting modernised I believe it is time to look at this aspect of aesthetics seriously. Till that time, I request the readers to not shun the funky looking vegetables/fruits on the supermarket shelves or the pushcart of your street vendor. 

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