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The Dirty Secret Behind The Perfect Fruits And Vegetables At Your Grocery Store

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Well-presented, shiny and uniformly sized apples, carrots and other fruits and vegetables are what we’ve come to expect in our local grocery store. 

But it’s a perfection that does not always reflect the produce being grown on farms across the U.S., says Danielle Nierenberg, co-founder of the nongovernmental organization Food Tank.

“Food grows in the soil and is dirty and comes in all shapes and sizes, yet we’ve been trained to believe that everything is pristine and perfect. It’s part of our culture now. The grocery aisles tell our eyes one thing and we don’t realize that there is nothing bad about misshapen or imperfect-looking food.”

And many of us associate aesthetics with eating pleasure. “People think food that looks perfect tastes perfect, but that’s not the case. Ugly can be tasty and nutritious,” Nierenberg says.

It all started with the spread of refrigeration technology in the 1980s that enabled fresh fruits and vegetables to be kept chilled soon after being harvested all the way through to the grocery aisle. The ability to preserve “perfect-looking” produce over longer distances gave retailers the option to source fresh produce from further afield and so be more selective about what they would take, enabling them to set increasingly stringent quality standards.

“The result is that if you go to a grocery store in the U.S. today, you see aisles of apples all the same shape and color. It teaches kids that this is what fruit and vegetables are meant to look like,” says Evan Lutz, co-founder of the food waste company Hungry Harvest.

That culture is being reinforced by social media and the focus on immaculate, Instagram- and Pinterest-worthy meals, says Andrea Spacht, a food specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The downside to this desire for perfect fruits and vegetables is mountains of food waste.

A study in Minnesota found that up to 20 percent of most fruit and vegetable crops were too large, too small or otherwise too cosmetically compromised to meet the standards set by retail buyers, with some growers reporting losses up to 30 percent or higher. Another study in North Carolina found 42 percent of crops were left unharvested, the majority of which did not meet appearance quality standards set by buyers.

Farmers have also said they have been forced to leave crops unharvested because the prices offered by buyers for lower-quality fruit and vegetables is too low to cover the costs of harvesting, including transport and labor.

“If the price being offered by the market is too low, then sometimes the produce just sits unharvested in the field,” says Sam Thorp, who runs the fruit and vegetable farm Spade & Plow in San Martin, California. 

“Retailers have realized that if fresh produce looks a certain way, it will sell better. Therefore, knowing what they are going to get from farmers is important to them, hence why they set those quality standards,” he adds.

Thorp has seen such waste firsthand, having worked on a number of farms. But after setting up his own farm business with his father, Mike, and brother Nick in 2015, they have managed to cut waste by selling not just to wholesale buyers but directly to customers.

Just this past month, a period of cold weather left the Thorps with a harvest full of blistered artichokes that they could not sell to wholesale buyers. But the local restaurants the farm sells to were more than happy to buy the artichokes, as were the farm’s veg box customers and those they sell to at farmers markets. 

They might not look perfect, but the blemished artichokes taste just fine, says Thorp: “They actually taste even better as they’re a little bit sweeter and nuttier.”

Making consumers realize that ugly fruit and vegetables still taste good and are fine to eat could help significantly cut food waste, says Nierenberg. And that message doesn’t only have to come from farmers.

Spacht says there are positive signs out there of our perfection culture being challenged with TV shows such as A&E’s “Scraps,” which features chef Joel Gamoran making beautiful food with an eye toward preventing waste.

There are also a number of companies that claim to be helping reduce food waste by selling excess produce, including ugly fruit and vegetables, to consumers via doorstep delivery programs. One of those is Baltimore-based Hungry Harvest, which buys surplus food ― including fruit and vegetables that don’t meet quality standards ― from growers and wholesalers, and sells it to consumers via box subscriptions.

Critics have argued that companies like Hungry Harvest are just creating a premium market for food that would otherwise be sold for food processing or given to food banks ― and not wasted.

But Lutz told MagPost that Hungry Harvest is “not an ugly veg company” and that this only accounts for a small proportion of the produce they buy. The majority is just surplus to requirements because, for example, the farmer could not find a buyer for it. “What we sell is a full range of what farms produce rather than just the perfect food. We want people to accept food as it is.”

While the debate around ugly fruits and vegetables gains attention, it’s important to remember that wonky produce is far from the only source of food waste. A bigger problem is food wasted at home. More than 50 percent of the food that ends up in landfills in the U.S. originates from consumers.

Tackling this requires consumers to watch portion sizes and find ways to make use of foods that often get thrown out, says Nierenberg.

California-based charity Food Forward is one organization trying to tackle this. In addition to distributing unsold fruits and vegetables from wholesalers and farmers to local food banks, it runs food waste education programs in local schools, teaching students how to use foods that often get thrown out at home, such as brown bananas to make banana bread.

Ultimately, getting people to cut their food waste may come down to government action. In South Korea, a national ban on sending food to landfills and a legal requirement for residents to pay for what they throw away has led to a reduction in the amount of food wasted in people’s homes.

“It makes you aware of how much waste you’re producing,” one South Korean resident told HuffPost. Pretty much all of what is discarded is recycled into animal feed, fertilizer, biogas or bio-oil. 

For Thorp, there is a much easier solution for any fruits and vegetables they have left over once they’ve sold as much ugly produce as they can. “We have a neighbor who keeps goats,” he says.

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China urges UK to ignore pressure over Huawei 5G decision

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China’s ambassador to the UK has urged the government to ignore external pressure over a politically and diplomatically charged decision to involve the Chinese firm Huawei in building the 5G communications network.

In China’s first official comments on the row, Beijing’s ambassador to London, Liu Xiaoming, urged the UK to make the “right decision independently” over the suppliers for the new network.

Huawei is at the centre of a Whitehall leak inquiry after details emerged of a National Security Council (NSC) meeting during which Theresa May approved giving Huawei a limited role supplying the 5G system.

Some senior cabinet ministers, now suspected of leaking the decision, were reportedly opposed to the move, a stance backed by security chiefs and the UK’s closest allies. The Trump administration is expected to urge the government to reconsider the decision.

The US and Australia have blocked Huawei from work on their own networks because of security concerns, some of which were reportedly raised by cabinet ministers at the NSC meeting about the firm’s involvement.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Liu did not name the US, but the article was clearly aimed at urging the UK to resist pressure from Washington. He wrote: “Countries of global influence, like the UK, make decisions independently and in accordance with their national interests.

“When it comes to the establishment of the new 5G network, the UK is in the position to do the same again by resisting pressure, working to avoid interruptions and making the right decision independently based on its national interests and in line with its need for long-term development.”

Liu urged the UK to resist “protectionism” and added: “The last thing China expects from a truly open and fair ‘global Britain’ is a playing field that is not level.”

He said security concerns around the development of 5G were understandable because it was a new technology and “is not perfect”.

“The risks should be taken seriously but risks must not be allowed to incite fear. They can be managed, provided countries and companies work together,” he wrote.

“Huawei has had a good track record on security over the years, having taken the initiative to invest in a Cyber Security Evaluation Centre, which employs an all-British monitoring team. The company has been working hard to improve its technology and to enhance the security and reliability of its equipment.”

Six Conservative MPs, including Bob Seely, a member of the Commons foreign affairs committee, have written to the culture secretary, Jeremy Wright, with their concerns.

The letter said: “Having China anywhere near our communications systems poses structural risks about the level of Chinese influence in our society. Chinese law demands that Chinese firms work with the Chinese secret services.”

Responding to Liu’s article, Seely tweeted that China had “a bad record on hacking, IP theft and arguably using big data and AI against its own people”.

The manner in which details of the NSC discussion were leaked has prompted a major inquiry.

Members of the cabinet were expected to be summoned for interviews as part of the formal inquiry headed by the cabinet secretary and national security adviser, Sir Mark Sedwill.

Ministers and aides were reportedly issued questionnaires requiring them to explain where they were in the hours following Tuesday’s NSC meeting.

They were also said to have been asked to provide details of all mobile phones in their possession and whether they spoke to the Telegraph, which carried the original report about the Huawei decision.

Much of the attention has focused on five ministers who were said to have voiced objections to the Huawei decision – the home secretary, Sajid Javid; the foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt; the defence secretary, Gavin Williamson; the international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt, and the international trade secretary, Liam Fox.

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Humans make safer user profiles than AI: Study

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People trust human-generated profiles more than artificial intelligence-generated profiles, particularly in online marketplaces, reveals a study in which researchers sought to explore whether users trust algorithmically optimised or generated representations.

The research team conducted three experiments, particularly in online marketplaces, enlisting hundreds of participants on Amazon Mechanical Turk to evaluate real, human-generated Airbnb profiles.

When researchers informed them that they were viewing either all human-generated or all AI-generated profiles, participants didn’t seem to trust one more than the other. They rated the human- and AI-generated profiles about the same.

That changed when participants were informed they were viewing a mixed set of profiles. Left to decide whether the profiles they read were written by a human or an algorithm, users distrusted the ones they believed to be machine-generated.

“Participants were looking for cues that felt mechanical versus language that felt more human and emotional,” said Maurice Jakesch, a doctoral student in information science at Cornell Tech in America.

‘AI holds potential of democratising, enabling creativity for all’, says Adobe’s Shanmugh Natarajan

“The more participants believed a profile was AI-generated, the less they tended to trust the host, even though the profiles they rated were written by the actual hosts,” said a researcher.

“We’re beginning to see the first instances of artificial intelligence operating as a mediator between humans, but it’s a question of: ‘Do people want that?”

The research team from Cornell University and Stanford University found that if everyone uses algorithmically-generated profiles, users trust them. But if only some hosts choose to delegate writing responsibilities to artificial intelligence, they are likely to be distrusted.

ALSO READ: Researchers build new AI that could replace sushi chefs

As AI becomes more commonplace and powerful, foundational guidelines, ethics and practice become vital.

The study also suggests there are ways to design AI communication tools that improve trust for human users. “Design and policy guidelines and norms for using AI-mediated communication is worth exploring now”, said Jakesch.

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Microsoft Surges Toward Trillion-Dollar Value as Profits Rise

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FILE - A sign for Microsoft is seen on a building in Cambridge, Massachusetts, March 18, 2017.

FILE – A sign for Microsoft is seen on a building in Cambridge, Massachusetts, March 18, 2017.

Microsoft said profits climbed in the past quarter on its cloud and business services as the U.S. technology giant saw its market value close in on the trillion-dollar mark.

Profits in the quarter to March 31 rose 19 percent to $8.8 billion on revenues of $30.8 billion, an increase of 14 percent from the same period a year earlier.

Microsoft shares gained some 3% in after-hours trade, pushing it closer to $1 trillion in value.

It ended the session Wednesday with a market valuation of some $960 million, just behind Apple but ahead of Amazon.

In the fiscal third quarter, Microsoft showed its reliance on cloud computing and other business services which now drive its earnings, in contrast to its earlier days when it focused on consumer PC software.

“Leading organizations of every size in every industry trust the Microsoft cloud,” chief executive Satya Nadella said in a statement.

Commercial cloud revenue rose 41% from a year ago to $9.6 billion, which now makes up nearly a third of sales, Microsoft said.

Some $10.2 billion in revenue came from the “productivity and business services” unit which includes its Office software suite for both consumers and enterprises, and the LinkedIn professional social network.

The “more personal computing” unit which includes its Windows software, Surface devices and gaming operations generated $10.6 billion in the quarter.

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