Apple and pear surpluses: time to bite the bulletWritten on 26 February 2021 · 5 mins, 10 secs
Some 360,500 tonnes of apples and pears colour our soil every year, mainly in South Limburg and Flemish Brabant. However, Belgium faces a recurring problem: tons of apples and pears that are perfectly consumable do not end up on our plates.
Just think of 2016, when our country was authorised by Europe to destroy 25,700 tonnes of apples and pears to prevent sales prices from collapsing. Or the pear crisis of 2019, when the drought resulted in smaller pears than usual. The result: a third of the pears were unfit for commercial sale.
Things can be different, so it is time to bite the bullet! We took a closer look at the sector:
The scale of the problem
Belgium was allowed to withdraw about 25700 tonnes of apples and pears from the market in 2016 due to an oversupply. That is 652 trucks. Given that there is no prospect of the Russian embargo being lifted and that it will take several years to find new export markets, the risk of an oversupply of apples and pears remains high. In addition, Brexit could again pose a threat to Belgian apples and pears. Currently, 5% of Belgian fruit exports go to the UK. More import duties could reduce this share and thus increase the risk of an oversupply again.
Part of the loss is due to, among other things, poor storage and sub-optimal harvesting techniques, but in general, the Belgian apple and pear trade is hit hard by high cosmetic standards and systematic overproduction.
Unrealistic beauty standards
Today, ten of the most popular fruit and vegetables – accounting for 75% of the sector’s monetary value – are still subject to cosmetic standards imposed by the European Union. The European marketing standards provide for the division into three classes: Extra class, class I and class ll. Within this system, there are strict cosmetic requirements per fruit variety, which relate, for example, to size, shape and colour.
Fruit that does not meet cosmetic requirements is usually the result of climatic setbacks (e.g. hail, drought, etc.) and diseases and pests. Climate change encourages this phenomenon: drier summers generally result in smaller fruit, and thus more deviations from the norm.
On top of this, however, the retail sector applies its own standards that are stricter than the legal ones. They do this for the consumer who, according to them, will not accept cosmetically imperfect fruit. The inferior fruit is also usually given the name Rebut.
Apples and pears are inspected both at picking and at auction. Fruit of inferior quality therefore remains on the tree, is thrown on the ground as fertiliser or arrives at the auction in bulk.
The result of this quest for beauty is that every year in Flanders an average of 19% of apples and 11.7% of pears are lost for direct sale – astronomical figures purely for aesthetic reasons.
Fortunately, 70% of the ‘mavericks’ are processed into juice, mash or another product. The other 30%, however? They often remain on the tree or are dug back into the ground. A delicious apple that may not be the right size, colour, weight or shape is therefore often wasted unnecessarily.
A market that encourages waste
Marktverstoringen brengen geregeld problemen mee voor de verkoop van landbouwproducten en werken verspilling vaak in de hand. Denk bijvoorbeeld aan de Russische handelsboycot op Europese land- en tuinbouwproducten. Het gevolg was een instorting van de fruitprijzen door het enorme surplus.
In het geval dat de marktprijs onder een kritische drempel zakt, stipuleert het landbouwbeleid van de Europese Unie dat de landbouwsector producten uit de handel mag nemen om de prijzen te doen stijgen. Die overschotten mogen dan gratis ter beschikking worden gesteld van organisaties om verspilling tegen te gaan. Echter, door de beperkte capaciteit van sociale organisaties wordt vaak slechts een deel van deze producten herbestemd.
So what can we do with the 30% of remaining misfits and oversupply? Well, as long as we keep looking for export markets, we in Belgium can also make a difference.
The fruit sector of Limburg mainly sees opportunities in the professional marketing of large volumes of fruit derivatives. The options include not only the local production of apple sauce, pear juice, cider and cake, but also calvados, syrup, sweets and even gin.
By valorising the inferior fruit, the price pressure on the higher classes can be reduced. Moreover, if there is an alternative and assured outlet for inferior products, there is a better spread of risk for the grower.
We can only encourage innovation of this kind. For example, every year FoodWIN awards the Food Waste Awards to an organisation that deals creatively with food surplus. One of the 2019 finalists, for example, was Stokerij Vanderlinden with their range of spirits distilled from inferior fruit. As mentioned above, too small a share of the surpluses still goes to social organisations. Regional redistribution platforms can make a difference here. De Schenkingsbeurs offers a good alternative.
There are also countless ways in which we can valorise less valuable products. Other initiatives also allow us to put our money where our mouth is. Following the Russian embargo, FoodWIN launched Juice For Change, where volunteers harvested no less than seven tonnes of unharvested apples. From those apples, 4,500 litres of juice were squeezed, ready for sale.
And you too can help reduce unnecessary waste. Just as beauty ideals are instilled through advertising, magazines and social media, we are only exposed to the most perfect apples and pears. After all, real beauty (and vitamins) are on the inside.
So take the crazy fruit out of the supermarket, buy direct from the farmer and even make a flat apple into a puree.
Want to know more? Check out our factsheet (in Dutch)!
- de Hooge, I. E., van Dulm, E., & van Trijp, H. C. (2018). Cosmetic specifications in the food waste issue: Supply chain considerations and practices concerning suboptimal food products. Journal of Cleaner Production, 183, 698-709.
- Van Steenkiste, S. (n.d.). Creatief met appels en peren: hoe we ons fruitoverschot kunnen wegwerken. Eos.
- Markey, E. (2019, April 19). Hoe kunnen we het weggooien van peren vermijden? Retrieved from: https://www.vrt.be/vrtnws/nl/2019/04/19/fruit/
- Departement Landbouw en Visserij. (2017). DE IMPACT VAN COSMETISCHE KWALITEITSEISEN OP VOEDSELVERLIES: Casestudie Vlaamse sector groenten en fruit