Ugly produce is likely to benefit biodiversity

I believe that produce need not be held to commercial beauty standards. Here’s why. Produce at commercial supermarkets is usually plump, cartoon-ish, vibrantly colorful, and generally “seedless.” These kinds of standards create a very narrowly defined norm for the image of many fruits and vegetables. The produce on commercial grocery store shelves represents an extremely low level of biodiversity. According to the Guardian, seventy-five percent of the world’s food comes from just a dozen crops.

Produce in a supermarket
Photo by Sven Scheuermeier

Commercializing a few limited varieties of crops creates monocultures, which come with a list of environmental disadvantages. They are prone to disease, they deplete the soil of select nutrients such that it can become unsuitable for farming in a short period of time, and they are dependent on toxic pesticides. In addition, the ability of our food sources to adapt to the impacts of climate change depends on having wild relative or heirloom varietals to interbreed with. Effective plant breeding depends on maintaining a high enough level of biodiversity in the gene pool to draw from. This has awakened us to a new era in which agricultural biodiversity will help ensure our food security in the future.

A few eye-opening images have been circulating around the web of several modern domesticated varieties that look almost nothing like their wild ancestors. Some of the internet’s favorite versions are the carrot, which went from something that looked like a weed to a miniature construction-cone in shape and color. The water melon is another favorite because it went from looking like the Milky Way to looking like Mars on the inside.

These images made me wonder how we might become more image-conscious about the way we depict plants and animals. We can probably do a lot expand our visual literacy towards the actual diversity of wild and domestic edibles that exists in the world. The same principles that apply in body positivity could be applied to agriculture to promote biodiversity. In a perfect world, each plant and animal would be valued for its uniqueness rather than its sameness.

Wild mushrooms and Strawberries
Photo taken by Nick Grappone

People are reacting to the supermarket aesthetic in various ways. For instance, the ugly produce is beautiful movement addresses how modern supermarkets throw away perfectly edible fruits or vegetables because they are not aesthetically pleasing. Foraging is a trend that involves learning how to identify and collect edible plants that are available in the wild. And lastly, polyculture organic farming can entail planting multiple crops alongside one another in multi-cropping, planting small plants in the gaps between larger crops in inter-cropping, and crop rotation each season. Check out the Agricultural Biodiversity Blog for loads more information.

One day, our crops may change from this:


to this:

Polyculture Crop
Image of a Polyculture crop taken from here.
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4 thoughts on “Ugly produce is likely to benefit biodiversity

  1. Erica,
    I’ve been wondering about that, too. Awhile back, “ecologist” magazine published an article about all the little-known fruits and vegetables that the GMO people haven’t yet discovered. I found that rape weed, which hunters use to attract deer, grown from the rape seed used to make oil, is tasty, like a cross between spinach and collard greens. I feed the seed to my chickens, and some has grown from that, but lately it hasn’t grown much. I have to wonder if Monsanto has tampered with it.


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