About one third of all food produced worldwide is wasted.

That’s a staggering amount. And it’s unacceptable if we hope to meet the goal of feeding a global population of ten billion by 2050.

In the developing world, most food loss happens in transportation and storage. But in modern industrialized nations, where most people enjoy ready access to food, more waste occurs in the market and in private homes.

Many sources of waste are familiar to those with experience in these foodways: overproduction, spoilage of food that doesn’t sell in the store, and spoilage of food that doesn’t get eaten at home.

Fortunately, there are market incentives for using more of this abundance, and we’re getting better at wasting less. By developing solutions ranging from resale markets to apps, experts have found better ways to connect surplus food with hungry people.

But one persistent source of waste has become emblematic of the need for better distribution of food resources in market economies: the plight of ugly food.

Ugly food is food that’s fit for consumption, but not visually appealing. It’s the same as any other item of its kind. Its defects are aesthetic rather than nutritional.

But in consumer-driven economies, a good’s appearance might deter a buyer from making a purchase. In a competitive marketplace, only the prettiest fruits, vegetables, and meat sells. Consequently, a lot of imperfect-looking food gets wasted.

How much?

It’s a matter of debate. But one investigation reported 25% of apples, 20% of onions, and 13% of potatoes are discarded for cosmetic reasons. As recently as 2018, Australian grocers rejected as much as 40% of fresh produce because it lacked the right size, complexion, or shape for sale.

That’s unacceptable. But what can we do?

There are a number of viable solutions on offer.

  1. Back companies who find uses for ugly food.

    Startups like Misfits Market and Imperfect Produce deliver cosmetically-impaired produce to your door at deep discounts. You can feel good about getting high-quality produce at a low price, knowing you’re helping to reduce food waste.

  2. Persuade stores to sell ugly food.

    In response to customer demand, many supermarkets have started to put out imperfect food for sale. Chains like Hannaford, Giant Eagle, and Whole Foods have started merchandising ugly produce. If you’d like to see your favorite shopping place focus less on aesthetics, let them know! Grocers who know there’s a demand for ugly food are more likely to start selling it.

  3. Support existing uses for ugly food and find new outlets.

    A lot of ugly food isn’t sold in stores, but is used for other purposes in food production. Major food suppliers use a lot of these imperfect goods. And innovative new technologies like 3-D printing may help to generate new uses.

    Remember, any waste of perfectly good food –even if it’s ugly food–makes it harder to feed our growing population. Buying imperfect food and finding ways to market it to others can help close the gap between current food production and what’s needed by 2050.