Israel’s Markets Are About to Get Ugly

Students pushing to change rules of retail after learning that Israelis would happily buy imperfect fruit and vegetables for a discount.

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Imperfectly shaped but equally nutritious strawberries: A group of former IDC students finds that Israeli consumers would buy "ugly" produce, for the right price.
Imperfectly shaped but equally nutritious strawberries: A group of former IDC students finds that Israeli consumers would buy "ugly" produce, for the right price.Credit: Benמט Ben Yisrael

People like pretty things. But when society’s standards of beauty are applied to fruits and vegetables, the result is waste.

As much as 900 million tons of unbeautiful fruits and vegetables remain in the fields worldwide each year, says the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Now a group of students is taking action to make Israel part of a global movement to bring ugly fruits and vegetables to market, blemishes and all.

“People are not perfect. Why do we expect our fruits and vegetables to be any different?” says Romi Davidor, a recent Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center graduate leading the effort.

"Ugly" fruits and vegetables deviate from the quintessential ideal, but are nutritionally identical to their sightlier peers. In Israel, 65 percent of all ugly fruits and vegetables grown in Israel go to waste, says the team of ex-IDC grads,  Davidor with Nevo Benita, Ben Fefferman, Tzachi Kirshberg and Shahar Yaffe. About 20 percent is sold as raw material and the rest is donated or consumed by the farmers’ families. Here too, the markup on what ugly produce they do manage to sell is so small that the farmers simply leave much of it on the field. In crowded, semi-arid Israel, it is a pure waste of scarce arable land and precious water.

Yet people would buy ugly produce, for the right price, it turns out – for instance, 25% off, according to a survey the former students conducted in Israel. “If I plan to bake a cake, for example, it doesn’t really matter how my fruits and vegetables look,” admits Tel Aviv consumer Anat Raz.

The team hopes to help Israelis embrace ugly produce by a combo approach.

Israel’s Standards Law sets quality standards for fruits and vegetables that may be sold retail, based on factors such as size, shape and color. Ahead of pushing imperfect produce onto mainstream markets, the group proposes legislative amendments to define a wider set of fruits and vegetables suitable for marketing, with the help of parliamentary assistants in the Knesset.

The wholesale produce market in Zerifin: A lot of imperfect fruit and vegetables goes to waste, because it doesn't pay for the farmer to pick them, or the retailer to sell them.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

In parallel, the group is designing a campaign to promote the charms of ugly fruits and vegetables. Yaffe however admits that until Israel's major retailers come on board, things might not move.

The team draws inspiration from other countries where ugly produce has reached retailers, such as the Intermarché in France, Walmart in the United States and Sainsbury in the United Kingdom.

“We’re pushing toward making big retailers here in Israel accept our idea, like Intermarché did. A company that takes on this project will actually receive a lot of benefits,” Davidor said, nodding toward the French company’s revenues boost following the launch of its ugly fruits and vegetables campaign, Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables. Intermarché claims its traffic grew 24% nationwide, and says it sold selling an average of 1.2 tons of ugly produce per store in the first two days. Pushing ugly fruit can give retailers an eco-friendly image, Davidor adds, and concludes: “I don’t see any downsides."

Some retailers do. Itay Huli, manager of “The Taste of Fruits and Vegetables”, a store in Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market, home of specialty shops with delicacies such as lobster, does not agree that ugly fruits and vegetables suit all types of markets and consumers.

“We have to bring the best produce because chefs shop here. People who want the best quality they can find shop here,” Huli says. That said, even he thinks a special shop devoted to discounted ugly fruits and vegetables could do well even in ritzy Sarona.

The author, a student at Brandeis University, wrote this article under the auspices of Zavit Science and Environment News Agency.

A watermelon that fell to the ground and split open at the wholesale produce market in Zerifin: It might have had trouble selling, since its shape was not 'perfect'.Credit: Ofer Vaknin