Why We Decided to Save Fruits from Outside of Europe with the Help of One Wholesaler
and How this is Still Creating Direct Value for the Farmers
Written by Carolin Schiemer.
Meet Ernesto Bartusch and his family. His family are growers of organic fruits on 250 ha land in the Centenario and Añelo’s area in the northern part of Patagonia, Argentina. Growing is tradition for the family-run business, and their pride is pears, which they are producing in the finest quality and therefore ship all over the world. Also to Europe.
But the Bartusch family has a problem with their oh-so famous fruit: for some percentage of the harvest, they never see money, or much less than they should get for a top quality, organic fruit that has been grown with much knowledge and respect for the soil. And they are not alone, farmers from outside of Europe experience this more often than you would think, so their livelihood is in the hands of European wholesalers and not all of them are very helpful or transparent. The reason is solemnly exterior and about the looks of the fruits, and has nothing to do with the quality and taste of it.
Have you heard of marketing standards for fruit and vegetables?
Pears with skin defects. Pic by Rachel Jones.
Yes, such a thing exist, and it’s a brainchild of the European Union that has decided how fresh produce, like pears or grapefruit, has to look like. To be classified as “Class 1” (which is the predominant quality standard of fruit & veg in supermarkets, after “Class Extra”), a fruit has to be uniform in size, shape and colour. To be specific, it cannot have cosmetic skin defects that “extent 2 cm in length” or “1 cm2 of the total surface area”, also slight brownish colour is not wished, and a diameter of less than 50mm will cause a downgrading to “Class 2”, which is significantly harder to sell.
These marketing standards are exactly the reason why the Bartusch family and growers worldwide have a hard time selling their top quality produce that falls outside the beauty norm. Also slightly softer produce often remains unwanted, although some sorts taste even better when soft.
It gets especially difficult to sell imperfect produce in highly standardised markets, like the European ones. Scandinavia is a tough cookie: apparently, green pears dictate customer preferences and are the reason why approximately 4–5 tons of perfectly edible, but yellowish pears are being discarded each week at the organic wholesaler Biotropic alone— the company who imports the Bartusch family’s pears.
This is of course not only a pear problem, but a problem for many other fruits as well, for example the South African Grapefruit from the farm Groenheuwel Boerdery, that was almost thrown out because of skin defects from pitting. Pitting means that the fruit surface has been damaged through sudden exposure to humidity and temperature drops during postharvest, for example through unregulated cooling rooms. Our food system works in the way that it determines the quality of fresh food based on external looks, and supermarkets usually don't accept produce that looks too "ugly" although it's completely functional on the inside.
There are not many options at hand for produce that is outside the beauty norm.
Worldwide, food waste due to cosmetic issues accounts for approximately one third of all produce grown, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation (FAO). That is huge. So we asked Biotropic, who specialises in the production, import and pan-European sales of organic fruit and vegetables from five continents, what happens to the pears and other fruits when they arrive from their 2 weeks long ship cruise across the Atlantic.
Shortly after arrival at the Biotropic’s branch in Rotterdam, Netherlands, an external partner evaluates the quality of all incoming produce. This is exactly when each week, approximately 4–5 tons of imperfect pears get sorted out. As a side note: we bought roughly 400 kg of these in one week, so we could have saved 10 times more than that if we had the capacity to take them. Keep in mind that these are just quantities of ONE type of produce from ONE wholesaler in ONE week of the year.
Shit is real, people.
The wholesaler then has a couple of options for what to do with these quantities. Since they can’t sell the pears to their regular customers, which are mainly supermarkets, they try to give it to food collections points across the country. However, getting rid of 4–5 tons of pears only each week is a difficult job. So often, they are forced to throw some percentages out.
As a last option, they can sell the organically grown pears as conventional pears. As you can imagine, conventional produce sells roughly for only 1/3 of the price as organic. Now comes the tricky part: in this specific case, payout to the farmers is commission-based, meaning that they only get money for produce that is being sold.
Summing up, throwing the pears out means a total loss for the farmers and the environment. Giving them to food collection points would mean no food waste but zero income for the farms, whereas selling them as conventional at least would cover some of the costs of the farmers. That is why at GRIM, we are happy to buy the pears and grapefruits, not only to avoid waste, but to help the farmers and give them the income they deserve for their hard work and expertise.
It’s time to join the ugly food revolution. And that’s that!
Since food waste businesses like ours, GRIM, are only just emerging in Europe, the wholesaler Biotropic is excited about the opportunity to work together with us as an outlet to sell their imperfect produce — for a better price. For the pears, we payed roughly 40% less than what would be the normal price for organic pears. As a consequence, this means also that the farmers get roughly one third higher pay by selling to us than selling their grim produce as conventional.
Browsing the Bartusch family’s website of their company “La Deliciosa” — which means “the delicious”, their mission is to “be recognised by customers” because of their “excellence in services or the products”. Keeping that in mind, our company GRIM’s vision is to increase transparency within the food value chain and to give farmers a voice — farmers who have previously remained unknown and whose stories unheard.
In Biotropic, we’ve found the perfect partner to level up transparency.
Biotropic’s branches in Italy, France, the Netherlands, Spain, South Africa, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic allow them to have direct trade relations with countries all over the world. They get to know their organic producers personally through their work on-site and have been working with many of these as partners for long periods of time. Just like with Ernesto and his Bartusch family and Groenheuwel Boerdery.
Like us, they work closely with the organic farms and farmers, and it is therefore no big issue for us to expand our chain a little, and sometimes welcome Biotropic as a stop between the organic farms and GRIM.
It is also thanks to the efforts of the management in the branch in Italy that since the beginning of the year, we could receive produce from Italy and now from Spain, the Netherlands and yeah, Argentina and South Africa. As a wholesaler, Biotropic takes responsibility for dealing with tons and tons of unwanted produce. They are a great example of how we wish everyone to act and we look forward to kicking off our partnership with The Dutch branch!