War on Waste a battle for Batlow growers

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Batlow apple grower Greg Mouat said he was as shocked as the rest of the country to see the wastage of bananas occurring at the farm stage, broadcast on ABC’s ‘The War on Waste’ on Tuesdays.

As many as 40 per cent of perfectly edible bananas are thrown away in Australia before they even make it to the supermarket, because they are too big, small, straight, or curvy to meet supermarket cosmetic specifications.

He said that a large number of his apples also don’t make it to supermarkets due to issues like not being red enough or having a misshapen shape – around 35 per cent, with significant fluctuations depending on the variety and yield.

However, he believes the onus should be on the growers to improve their techniques and make more high-quality, supermarket-ready fruit.

“I think it’s up to us to get better at what we do, because there is good money being paid for good quality fruit,” he said.

“[Cosmetic specifications] are a problem for us to an extent, but it’s not as bad as it is with bananas.

“I think with apples, if you’re growing a good mid-sized fruit, you can sell it. People want mid-sized apples, because they fit in lunchboxes. We sell a lot of smaller fruit out of our farm gate because it’s attractive to mums and dads.”

Apples are also a little different, because imperfect product that is rejected from supermarkets won’t be thrown away, it will be made into secondary products like juice or pies.

Mr Mouat said about 65 per cent of his apples are “first grade” fruit that is sold in supermarkets.

“Second grade” fruit, which is about 15 to 20 per cent of the fruit, is also sold to the market, but at a much lower cost.

“Third grade” fruit is destined for secondary products, like juice.

The problem, as Batlow grower Ralph Wilson explained, is that while second and third grade fruit isn’t wasted, it also isn’t remotely profitable for growers.

“Apples that go to juice we get as low as 11 cents a kilo for – it’s currently sitting at around 15 cents a kilo. They cost us around a dollar a kilo to grow, so obviously that’s not a good product,” he said.

“If we grow small apples they’re very hard to sell, and if we grow big apples they’re very hard to sell. So to get any money for them they have to be just the right size – but then nature kicks in, and we can’t tell a tree ‘all the apples have to be this size.’ The tree decides.

“We do our best to get the size range right, but there’s a lot of issues associated with that. So yes, there is a lot of product that we can’t find a home for, or if we do find a home it’s certainly well below the cost of production, and that means we become unviable.

“In terms of waste, the biggest problem is that sometimes as a grower, you know that if the fruit’s not good enough there’s no point picking it, and that’s where the waste happens.”

However, Mr Wilson agrees that changing the specifications of what can and can’t be sold in supermarkets wouldn’t solve the problem.

“Coles and Woolworths come out every now and again and try to sell second grade fruit – for example, orchards in Shepparton were hammered with hail a few years back, and they tried to sell that. But the problem is that if you sell hail grade fruit against first grade fruit it doesn’t sell – and the grower still doesn’t make any money.”

If there’s any consumer behaviour that would help fruit and vegetable farmers around Australia, it’s simply eating more fresh fruit and vegetables.

Cosmetic specifications are an issue for the Batlow growers to some degree, they said, but the biggest problem for them is that there are too many apples on the market against the demand.

“Consumption is sitting at around 9 kilos per head of population per year – that’s about an apple a week per head of population,” said Mr Mouat.

“If we somehow could get that consumption to two apples a week, it doubles production. Very simple numbers can have a significant effect.

“We have an obesity disaster on our hands. Our population is growing and yet our fresh fruit and vegetable consumption is declining. That’s a concern to all people.”

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