Fearful farmers tell ugly truth about our supermarkets

Farmers have been telling us for years about the behaviour of supermarkets. We thought these stories about the rejection of produce on the basis of its appearance must be exaggerated.

But our formal research uncovered much more.

We are heartened that concerns around anti-competitive practices and price gouging have resulted in an ACCC supermarket review and a review of the food and grocery code of conduct, but we encourage the federal government to dig deeper into the farmer-supermarket relationship.

Farmers tell us they are too scared to speak out but we need to address their concerns because these concerns worsen the affordability crisis, and strongly contribute to the 7.3 million tonnes of food thrown away each year.

Shockingly, almost 25 per cent of produce never leaves the farm because it’s not pretty enough for supermarkets. We had been hearing stories from farmers about their interactions with supermarkets. They included pallets being rejected because of one bad apple and supermarkets demanding all of a farmer’s “ugly” produce for free. The findings of our recent research project make an urgent case for the need to rethink supermarkets and how we treat farmers and their produce.

Farmers report that appearance is overwhelmingly the reason produce is rejected, with more than 68 per cent of fruit and vegetable rejection from commercial buyers due to the appearance of the products. Not only that, farmers “self-reject” produce. A staggering 51 per cent say they screen out produce they conclude will be rejected, and 20 per cent of large farmers are losing more than 30 per cent of what they grow because of supermarket pickiness around appearance and size.

This affects our farmers’ bottom line in a big way – 23 per cent of farmers report supermarkets expect them to hand over imperfect produce for free. This increases to 32 per cent for larger farmers. And overall, only 19 per cent of farmers believe they are paid a fair price for their produce by commercial buyers. Farmers and leading agricultural advocates say fear governs why these facts stay hidden: mainly fear of retribution from often the only buyer in town.

Supermarkets will say these aesthetic and size standards are what the consumer wants. There’s some truth in that. We have all been conditioned by pictures of “perfect” fruit and veg. You will rarely eat a tomato uncut, but the picture of “perfection” pushes out other considerations such as freshness and taste, and this can reinforce the supermarkets’ buying standards.

But it’s time we moved past the prettiness. Carrots don’t naturally look like a Bugs Bunny cartoon. In nature, bananas often grow together as four fruits in one. Eggplants have cute noses. Real fruit and veg has personality and it is often fresher because it’s coming straight from the farm, not sitting for weeks on a loading dock or treated with chemicals.

Our research showed that farmers feel supermarkets are too strict in their screening of fruit and vegetables. The research also tells us farmers worry as much about supermarket food rejection as they do about pests and disease ruining their crops.

That’s astounding because the latter have been blighting farmers since farming began, but food rejection on the basis of appearance is something we are doing to ourselves now.

Let’s not just blame supermarkets, however. They’ve done an amazing job of creating a system where food is abundant. But we need them to do better.

If customers won’t buy non-standard fruit and veg, the supermarkets should start educating them. Why don’t they put the same effort into supporting real fruit and veg, and the health of customers, as they do into promoting highly processed foods?

Richard Tourino and Jonathan Englert founded Good & Fugly, a social enterprise that buys ‘ugly’ produce from farmers. This opinion was originally published in The Australian on January 31, 2024


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