Fighting food waste,
one “ugly fruit” at a time

In October 2017, Spanish biotechnology student Carla Espinós Estévez attended the Youth Ag Summit in Brussels, Belgium. We caught up with her to learn about how she has been inspiring others to join the movement for feeding a hungry planet.

Carla, how did you become an ‘agvocate’ for food security? 

I have always been intrigued by the challenges presented by global population expansion and food shortages. In December 2016, I was attended the Nobel Week Dialogue in Stockholm, Sweden, where the theme was “Our Planet: The Future of Food”. This inspired me to take concrete action – so when I found out about the Youth Ag Summit, I applied without hesitation. 

During the Summit, I worked with nine other delegates to develop a project aimed at fostering food security in the context of UN Sustainable Development Goal #12: Sustainable Consumption and Production. We decided to focus on the issue of food waste and developed Imperfect Picks: an initiative encouraging people to eat ‘ugly’ fruits and vegetables. 

Why do we need this initiative?  

Around 10 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables are thrown away before they ever reach shop shelves, simply because their shape, size or color differs from the norm. Consumers tend to ignore them in favor of more standard-looking produce, even if they taste the same! Because of this, retailers won’t purchase them from farmers. This means that a lot of edible food ends up in landfill, which has a hugely negative environmental and financial impact. 

To break this cycle of rejection, we need to change consumer perceptions. If shoppers show an interest in purchasing so-called ‘ugly’ fruit or vegetables, retailers will have feel confident in stocking them – which means less wastage at the farm level and a greater yield for growers. 

How is the Imperfect Picks initiative different from other campaigns that have tackled this issue? 

There have been several campaigns aimed at encouraging consumers to embrace ‘imperfect’ fruits and vegetables. But few have been aimed at children – despite the fact that children play a large role in influencing parents’ purchasing decisions. Imperfect Picks focuses on educating children about and encouraging them to try unusual-looking fruit and vegetables. We do this by telling the story of ‘ugly’ food with the help of some friendly, original cartoon characters. 

How have you implemented the idea since the Youth Ag Summit concluded? 

After returning to Spain, I wanted to localize the project. Two classmates and I received funding from the Development Cooperation Center of the Polytechnic University of Valencia, where we were studying, to organize an expert talk on the topic of food waste. We invited the director of the Barcelona Food Observatory, Jesús Contreras, as well as biochemical scientist J.M. Mulet, to address the university. In parallel, we organized play sessions within the university’s daycare center to teach them about ugly fruits through games and activities. These experiences are helping to guide our wider Imperfect Picks Youth Ag Summit team, as we look to implement the idea globally, using the funding we received from Bayer. 

What advice do you have for like-minded young people looking to make a difference in the world? 

By raising awareness of the need to create a sustainable future together, young people can make their mark. Education and gender equality, for instance, are two areas that form the foundation of a more sustainable society. The most important thing is to include a range of perspectives. At the Youth Ag Summit for instance, the 100 delegates all had a different take on food security. By pooling those views, and working in an interdisciplinary way, we can establish lasting connections and find common solutions.

Apart from Imperfect Picks, what’s next for you? 

I recently graduated from the Polytechnic University of Valencia with an honors degree in Biotechnology, and I’m about to start studying for a Master’s degree in Immunology at Imperial College London. I would like to focus my research on cardiovascular diseases and metabolic disorders such as aneurysm, atherosclerosis, or diabetes. These diseases are often linked to high-fat diets. Meanwhile in developing countries, we are seeing a resurgence of infectious diseases and famine, which places a different kind of strain on health systems. This diverse context means that there is a clear role for combining lab research with ongoing social activism on food security – that’s what I’d like to do. 


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