GUEST POST: Supermarkets – The price we pay for cosmetic standards

Photography by Cyril Caton

We in the UK have become quite dislocated from how our food is produced and where it comes from – the vast majority of us having no relationship with or knowledge of the people who produce the food we rely on.

With over 80% of the UK’s population living in an urban environment, and 7 of the biggest supermarket chains having an 87% market share of the food we buy, it’s not surprising that that’s the case.

When it comes to the food we eat, we have relinquished much of the decision-making process to corporations whose actions are motivated by profit, and not by the interests of consumer wellbeing or that of the planet. We may be the ones who decide what to buy in the supermarket, but the choice we have is dictated to us by what they stock on their shelves – everything is pre-packed and preselected.

In the name of convenience we have put our trust in supermarkets to do right by us, and so tend to put little thought into the consequences of consuming what we do – rarely questioning how it was produced or where it came from. We don’t tend to concern ourselves with the true cost of buying almonds from California, where a severe drought has been on-going for 4 years; or prawns from Thailand where slave labour is used in the fishing and processing of prawns supplied to European supermarkets.

What is true of imported food is also true of British produce – there are hidden costs associated with buying our fruit and vegetables from supermarkets. They do their best to hide the consequences of their business practices – ensuring we are oblivious to the true cost of having perfectly straight carrots, or apples that are free from blemishes and just the right size. They hide the impact of a system they have engineered, and that we ultimately endorse through our support for them.

The cost of supermarket-imposed cosmetic standards on farmers is huge, and is one of the main reasons for around 30% of food grown on UK farms not making it off the trees or out of the ground.

This in turn means that 30% of all the water, pesticides, transport and other inputs used in farming this food is also wasted. According to a report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, at a global level approximately 550 billion cubic metres of water is wasted each year in growing crops that never actually reach the consumer.

Wasting food and all that has gone into producing the food is impacting on the major issues of our time – from food security to climate change, not to mention putting the survival of smaller farms at risk, and the health and livelihood of the farmers themselves.

Supermarkets claim that it is we, the consumers, who demand cosmetically perfect fruit and veg. But in a system created and sustained by the supermarkets, to great benefit to themselves, I think it’s more reasonable to assume the practice is driven by a desire to cut costs and maximise profits, rather than a desire to pander to consumer demand.

That said we have been complicit in the creation of this deeply flawed system – by not concerning ourselves with the impact of how our food is being produced. Relinquishing the decision-making process when it comes to the food we eat has come at a great cost to our society and the environment – both nationally and globally, and we must start holding the supermarkets to account – we can ill afford to let things continue on as they are, and despite an awareness within the industry as to the destructive impact wasting food has, things won’t change without us demanding it.

So while we may feel powerless in the face of large, multinational corporations, they are ultimately dependent on us consumers – without us they are nothing.

Collectively we need to push for change in their business practices – to end the imposition of absurd cosmetic standards and demand they sell ‘wonky’ fruit and veg. We need to push them to take all the necessary steps they can towards creating a fairer and more sustainable food system – a system that ultimately doesn’t result in millions of tonnes of edible food being needlessly left to rot every year.

This article was written by Chris King, the founder of ‘Food Is…‘ project.  

Read more about Chris and his project here.

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Seeing through the lens of Chris King

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‘Food Is…’

Chris King is the man behind ‘Food Is…’, a unique photography project that raises awareness about the solutions to food waste.

His background in being involved in grassroots activities on environmental and social justice issues, along with working and travelling in various countries has given him an urge to do something about injustices around the world.

“I feel food waste is a ‘silver bullet’ of sorts for many of the issues of our time. If you impact positively on food waste, you are impacting on climate change, food and water security, deforestation, the power of biotech firms, and various other critical issues.”

Started over a year ago, his subjects have included The Pig Idea, The Dragon Café, and Dinner Exchange East (See our live blog on their Calypso Dinner Exchange event here).

Brigida, founder of Dinner Exchange East carries some of the food they have gathered from local markets - saving it from the bin
Brigida, founder of Dinner Exchange East carries some of the food they have gathered from local markets – saving it from the bin. © Chris King / Food Is…

If you are expecting to see a series of photos of piles of food thrown out in the bin, you will be surprised.

In his quietly spoken Irish accent, Chris tells me that his aim is to focus on the solutions rather than the issue itself, another reason why many of his pictures revolve around people involved in organisations and initiatives working to reduce the amount of food waste generated by our society.

“It’s hard to generate any sort of emotion within people for a rotten apple. So I felt the need to explore the human element of food waste – the stories of those people trying to reduce the amount of edible food going to waste, and so the project has evolved to document people, their activities, and what motivates them to do what they do.”

In his portraits, people look straight into the lens – directly into the viewer’s eyes. It’s difficult to break away from their gaze.

“I made a conscious decision to put my camera on a tripod and take static portraits with a remote control”. Although he prefers taking dynamic photographs with his camera in his hand, he felt that “exposing the viewer to one action shot after another” was getting repetitious. He wanted to give the viewers a breathing space to reflect, and that is how his current approach came to be.

“It was my first time trying static portraits using a tripod. I still find imposing myself on the people and disrupting what they’re doing difficult. I prefer blending into the scene – after a while they don’t even know I’m there. This technique of stopping and putting my camera on the tripod has forced me to really think about how to represent my subjects”.

Martin, Gleaning Co-ordinator at the Gleaning Network at work in an orchard, gathering apples that would otherwise go to waste
Martin, Gleaning Co-ordinator at the Gleaning Network at work in an orchard, gathering apples that would otherwise go to waste. © Chris King / Food Is…

Photo diary

Unlike many other traditional documentary photography projects where the whole package of photos are showcased once the project has been completed, ‘Food Is…’ is in a photo diary format. This means the viewers can access Chris’ portraits and blog posts as soon as they are generated, and be part of the journey along with Chris as he explores this on-going issue.

“I wanted to have a conversation with people throughout the creation of the work and share this experience”.

Bringing the subjects alive as much as possible is at the heart of ‘Food Is…’, and you’ll find much more than beautiful documentary photography on the website. His blog posts are informative yet personal, and his multimedia work is engaging and thought-provoking.

Gleaners form a human train in order to carry as many crates of gleaned cabbages to the van as possible
Gleaners form a human train in order to carry as many crates of gleaned cabbages to the van as possible. © Chris King / Food Is…

Kit

Chris’ favoured lenses on the scene are two prime lenses (50mm f/1.4, 24mm f/2.8), where focal length is fixed. He prefers them because he feels they are better suited to the dynamic environment he is working in.

“I think zoom lenses add a layer of complexity when trying to compose a shot. I think using them would break my flow, and so I prefer to use prime lenses and use my feet instead. Zoom lenses are more suitable for when you have more time to spend on composition. With Food Is… I need to be over people’s shoulders, working in tight spaces, and responding to the scene as it unfolds.”

He shoots on Nikon D800.

Kent Gleaning Co-ordinator stands in a field of cauliflowers that are being left to rot
Kent Gleaning Co-ordinator stands in a field of cauliflowers that are being left to rot. © Chris King / Food Is…

Future plans

The most memorable organisation for Chris so far has been The Gleaning Network – a project working on a national level, that collects fresh fruit and vegetables from farms across the UK for redistribution to organisations such as FareShare.

“I think, seeing what I’ve seen and based on the limited knowledge I have, the greatest amount of change in the shortest amount of time could happen at the farm level. There are thousands of farm in the UK – many producing tonnes of food waste, while there are tens of millions of consumers who function as individuals – with their own tastes, habits and needs and producing relatively little waste. So when it comes to trying to reduce the amount of edible food needlessly going to waste, why not focus more on those few thousand farms, who likely function in a somewhat similar manner, than on the millions of individuals who each function in their own particular way?”

Inspired by the work of The Gleaning Network, Chris is planning to create a web documentary on the topic of food waste generated on farms in the UK.

To view more of Chris’ work, visit http://www.chriskingphotography.com and http://foodis.org.uk.

All photographs and videos in this post are by Chris King

VIDEO: The Roebuck – the pub with the best food waste strategy

Meet Jareth Mills, Head Chef at The Roebuck, a gastro-pub tucked away on the leafy side of the Borough.

His zero-waste policy earned his pub to be shortlisted for the Best Food Waste Strategy of the Sustainable Restaurant Association Awards in 2015.

In our interview on a sunny afternoon, Jareth shares with us his ethos, how his kitchen makes the most out of their ingredients and challenges he faces.

The Roebuck was also part of the FoodSave pilot scheme in 2014, where its kitchen waste was monitored for 3 months for analysis and review. The result showed that the pub could be saving up to £2,324 a year:

Communication with the customers is also an important part of running of The Roebuck. Even the artwork behind the bar tells you of the story of the pub’s efforts to be environmentally friendly:

And finally, his plans for the pub to sponsor a cherry tree and where his inspiration for zero-waste comes from:

 

10 Technologies that help you reduce food waste

DumpsterMap.com is an online resource for freegans and dumpster divers worldwide. You can view or share diving spots on Google Map, or connect with other divers around the world.
List version of the diving spots can be found here.

 

8c8fd02273d2c0024496a750fb2dd351Falling Fruit is a collaborative map of the urban harvest. From plants and fungi to water wells and dumpsters, this is for all you foragers and foresters out there.
You can even search by a type of fruit/tree you want to locate.     @Falling_Fruit

 

Leftover Swap
Leftover Swap is an app for sharing leftover food that is too good to throw out. You can view the available leftover food around you and arrange for pick-up or delivery.  @leftoverswap

 

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With Handpick app, find dish ideas with ingredients of your choice, explore its collection of food and follow the latest food trend. For Apple users only.

@handpickfood

 

imgresFoodcloud connects businesses with surplus food with charities that feeds those in most in need. Restaurants and supermarkets can use the app to upload details of food they would like to donate. Local charities can receive a notification and can pick it up. (In Ireland only)
@foodcloudire

 

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Plan Zheroes  is a based community map that also connects retailers with charities. You can also view how often each donors donate their excess food. Tutorials for businesses and charities are available.
@PlanZheroes

 

Love Food Hate Waste app helps you to plan, shop, cook meals, and manage surplus ingredients. You can also browse recipes and tips for utilising leftover food.
@LFHW_UK

 

Wise up on Waste  is an app to monitor and track food waste. You can identify when and where you are generating the most food waste and how much you can potentially save.

 

Berry Breeze keeps your food, well, fresh. By using O3 technology, mould and bacteria are eliminated and helps your food last longer.
@BerryBreeze

 

Foodsniffer
Food sniffer is a gadget with an ‘electronic nose’ that can tell you whether the food is fresh or not. Find out if the product is hazardous, has a risk of food poisoning, or has been left unrefrigerated for some time.