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Sylvain CharleboisWe waste a lot of food; tons of it, in fact. Indeed, some studies suggest that the overall cost of food waste in our country exceeds $100 billion annually. In response, Loblaw has decided to take action.

The company now sells bags of “Naturally Imperfect” apples and potatoes in select grocery stores across Ontario and Quebec, which may cost up to 30 percent less than more aesthetically pleasing fruits and vegetables. These bags will be sold at No Frills, Great Canadian Super Store and Maxi, stores where food price sensitivity is a more prominent concern.

Many have applauded the move, and rightly so. Some chains around the world have successfully launched similar campaigns, promoting inglorious fruits and veggies. Loblaw’s positioning with these products is a refreshing change that arguably comes at a time when the market genuinely needs it.

The company clearly felt that to be prime movers was key, as food waste has become a topical issue of late. As food prices have risen significantly with inflation over the last several years, there has been a concurrent rise in interest of how food supply chains actually work. Questions surrounding the shrinking packaging, farming production practices and pricing strategies were increasingly broached, with one topic of particular concern: food waste.

Food retailers are responsible for 10 percent of the food waste our systems generate. The worst culprits, however, are the consumers themselves, who are responsible for more than 47 percent of overall waste. Likely overwhelmed by a sense of powerlessness, this disturbing statistic left consumers wondering what they could do to positively contribute to the decline in food waste.

Consequently, Loblaw’s strategy is not just about giving “imperfect” fruits and vegetables greater attention; it also empowers consumers to repurpose food and to create an implicit connection between them and the realities of, and the relationship between, farming and big box stores. Even at 30 percent off, the food industry as a whole is still profiting more from these products that would have otherwise ended up as food processing ingredients, fertilizer, animal feed, or simply just wasted matter. Economically, everyone wins.

More importantly, as less than 2 percent of Canadians live on farms, the rural-urban divide significantly affects how the other 98 percent perceives the role of food in their everyday lives. Food shows on television, celebrity chefs, and the desire to purchase the best-looking produce for our buck has gradually created more focus on mere aesthetics. Even though we are hardwired to pick the bold and the beautiful, nature is anything but perfect.

In other parts of the world, selling malformed and imperfect food is not at all unusual. In Europe or in Asia, where farming and food consumption are often more highly intertwined, and rules are more relaxed, consumers are more accustomed to buying “normal-looking” fruits and vegetables in stores and at markets.

Based on the success of past campaigns around the world, there will be a demand for Loblaw’s “Naturally Imperfect” products. Supply, however, will remain a challenge. Farming is a price-taking business that relies heavily on contractual commitments from buyers. As a result, farmers will always go with the best price. So Loblaw’s incremental rollout is not surprising. Over time, with increased competition, these promotions may become more than occasional.

Loblaw’s forward-looking strategy empowers consumers to respond substantially to a problem most of us are just not able to see. Food waste is a supply chain-wide challenge, and providing lower graded fruits and vegetables with a new channel option is welcome news.

Among the larger players in the food distribution landscape, Loblaw is now Canada’s pioneer in honoring the horticultural misfits. It certainly possesses the buying power to dictate what it wants to sell. It wouldn’t be a surprise if other chains follow suit, should they have equal access to some of nature’s alleged “defects”.

The unpleasantness of food waste will be more visible than ever in grocery stores, and that’s a good thing. As we try to find ways to feed ourselves sustainably, giving consumers a chance to buy a previously underappreciated potato or apple is a step in the right direction.

Making savings, while buying nutritious products, makes nature even better for all of us.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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