Blaming consumers, farmers and business for food waste
“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.”