Blaming consumers, farmers and business for food waste

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The Natural Resources Defense Council is trying to drop a big load of guilt on American consumers and the producers of fruits and vegetables about wasting food to a scale that could feed the hungry of the world while also eliminating negative environmental impacts.

First, the NRDC did its food waste study that found Americans are currently tossing up to 40 percent of our food supply, and now, NRDC has taken a closer look at “one primary culprit: Crop Shrink—the significant fruit and vegetable losses on the farm.”

Americans are tossing more in the fruits and vegetables segment of foods than any other, 52 percent of the nation’s fruits and vegetables, according to NRDC.  And fruit and vegetable waste is occurring at “a rate higher than any other type of food product at nearly every level of the supply chain.”

The newest study investigates why “mountains of produce never even leave the farm” and what can be done about it. A summary of some of the findings are interesting, although it must be noted that they are compiled from an environmental activist organization’s point  of view—without a hands-on understanding of the intricate operations of farming. They are looking in from the outside, and not really providing a cure from top to bottom. Change will involve a major change in consumer attitudes and the way that farmers are paid for what they market.

NRDC says it has revealed what growers have known since the beginning of farming—that produce losses are driven by everything from overplanting, perfectly edible “imperfect produce” leading to culling, market fluctuations, labor shortages and spoilage, and much more.

The potential food solutions don’t seem like real solutions to many outside of NRDC.

  • Consumers: can buy “funny fruit”, perfectly edible produce that might be less cosmetically attractive.
  • Businesses: can acknowledge the challenges of farming, allowing for the occasional short volume and experimentation in procurement, food recovery and new secondary markets.
  • Policy-makers: can expand research on food loss on farms, so we know which crops have the most excess and why. And new legislation can provide tax credit incentives for food donations.  

It is interesting to note that NRDC calls Dana Gunders, its “food and agriculture-focused scientist and dynamic food waste warrior.”

“Some of this massive produce loss is happening well before it reaches retailers, as perfectly edible produce is literally being left on the field or sent to the landfill,” wrote Gunders.  

Weather events are often blamed for crop waste/shrink, but Gunders contends, “It does not take an extreme weather event, or a weather event at all, for crops to go to waste in the fields. In fact, thousands of acres of perfectly edible produce go to waste every year because of market fluctuations, cosmetic imperfections, and other reasons.”  

click image to zoom This new crop loss report NRDC admits surveyed a small sample of 16 farmers and packer-shippers in the central coast and Central Valley of California.  NRDC calls the results “an anecdotal snapshot of the extent of losses that occur.” They found that “shrink,” another word for lost product, “could be as low as 1 percent for the crops which were studied and, depending on weather and market conditions of a particular year, as high as 30 percent. Losses for plums and nectarines were on the high side; head lettuce and broccoli losses (at least where the farmer was selling florets separately) were relatively low.

Gunders then proceeds into making calculations related to an ideal world. “If just 5 percent of the U.S. broccoli production is not harvested, over 90 million pounds of broccoli go uneaten. That would be enough to feed every child that participates in the National School Lunch Program with 11 servings of 4-ounces of broccoli.

“It also translates to a lot of resources used for naught. For example, if just 5 percent of broccoli grown in Monterey County, California (producer of 40 percent of U.S. broccoli) is not harvested, that represents the wasted use of 1.6 billion gallons of water and 450,000 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer (a contributor to global warming and water pollution),” Gunders wrote. “And let’s not forget about the energy, pesticides, land, and other resources that went into growing that food. All told, it would amount to about a $12 million bill for broccoli farmers—a chunk of change and resources that warrant further investigation into how we might recover and improve upon some of these unnecessary staggering produce losses.”

The NRDC admits it is consumers as much as anyone that causes problems because they search for the perfectly round, perfectly colored, perfectly sized peach, we as consumers ultimately drive much of this waste. 

Gunders tried to show some sympathy for farmers and show that she understands vegetable and fruit production to a degree in her report issued to consumer and agricultural news outlets.

“Our finicky preference for perfect-looking produce not only forces some fruit and vegetables to be voted off the marketplace, it drives down the price of even slightly misshapen, smaller, or scarred fruit. A peach grower once told me that for eight out of ten of the fruit he can’t sell, ‘you wouldn’t even be able to tell me what’s wrong with it.’ Yet they are considered lower ‘grade,’ lower grades mean lower prices, and low prices are another cause of shrink. 

“It costs money to harvest a field. If prices are too low, the farmer would have to pay more for people to harvest the product and for cooling and transport than he would receive in revenue. So, that farmer is forced to deem that field or orchard a “walk by” and turn it back into the soil when possible. Estimates of how often walk-by’s happen ranged from 1 to 30 percent of the time. This mostly happens when the market is flooded with more supply than demand.

“There’s more to the story, however.  Inherent to the produce industry is a structure of a few large buyers and many suppliers. This leads to a situation where the largest food buyers are able to dictate the terms of a sale, and the growers are generally forced to accept them. These terms can include formal “penalties to deliver” if the grower comes up short in quantity at the agreed-upon level of quality. Even if that’s not required contractually, growers are compelled to ensure they meet the orders for fear they will otherwise lose their biggest customers. Therefore, they do exactly what anyone in their right mind with a riskier-than-average business would do—they plant a little extra for insurance. One grower estimated overplanting about 10 percent on a regular basis. Of course, when harvest time comes, he /she tries to find other markets for the surplus, so it may not go to waste.  In aggregate, however, this adds to the overall supply in the marketplace, thus driving prices down and potentially leading again to those walk-by’s. 

“A farmer might also be forced to abandon a field or entire crop because he/she simply can’t find enough workers to harvest it. Labor shortages are an increasing problem for farmers, as was demonstrated this year when in Washington apple growers estimated losing upwards of 25 percent of their harvest due to lack of skilled labor.

“Another big driver is market fluctuation. With highly variable prices—one broccoli grower had seen prices go as low as $6 per case and as high as $32—growers are constantly guessing on how to play the supply-demand game.  One good year can cover a series of bad ones. This can lead to an almost gambling mentality where growers ‘double down’ on what they are planting one year to cover the losses they incurred the previous year. That again creates more supply potentially creating the conditions for walk-by’s.”

Gunders ended with a thank you. “Gleaners and food rescue organizations, keep it up!  You are doing a service to all of us, and often with mere crumbs of a budget. We should all be throwing more moral, financial, and volunteer support your way. And we should all consider this a problem that we can help solve.”


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