I hate wasting food. I’m one of those moms who’s made a habit of assembling complete meals for myself out of my kids’ leftovers. As a nation, we have no business wasting 40 percent of our food supply. That, remarkably, is the volume that goes uneaten — of fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, meat and seafood — in a time when 45 million Americans are on food stamps. As the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) notes, it’s also a “massive waste of the resources required to produce that food.”
What are we wasting the most? The very foods that we’re supposed to be eating the most. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 52 percent of the country’s fruits and vegetables goes to waste somewhere along the way from field to table. 20 percent doesn’t even make it off the farm, though not a lot is known about why.
The NRDC undertook to find out and commissioned a survey of a small sample of 16 farmers and distributors in the Central Coast and Central Valley of California. Here are five reasons they say that a lot of their produce becomes garbage:
1. Imperfect product: A lot of perfectly edible produce won’t get harvested or make it to market simply because it doesn’t look perfect. Looks aren’t everything, don’t judge a book by its cover, appearances can be deceiving. This is an area in which consumers can take some action, says the NRDC, simply by showing businesses that we’re willing to buy produce that isn’t exactly “up to grade” on the outside as long as it’s good to go on the inside.
2. Fluctuating market prices: Low prices can mean that the costs of harvesting a crop and getting it to market exceed what the grower would make from the sale. In that case, the grower may decide to leave whole fields unharvested — known as “walk-bys” in the industry.
3. Overplanting: Growers would rather overplant their fields than come up short for their buyers, who expect a certain volume of product and may otherwise take their business elsewhere. Other markets are sought for the surplus, but growers may not find any. Prices, moreover, may be driven down as a result.
4. Labor shortages: The growers surveyed say that this is becoming more of a problem. Without the hands to help harvest the fields, they are forced to watch their crops go to waste.
5. Shorter shelf-life and spoilage: As noted in the NRDC report, “the costs and logistics of ensuring that products remain refrigerated (which extends a product’s life) make donating or finding other markets for produce more difficult, time-sensitive, and costly than, for instance, surplus clothing.”
The NRDC outlines a few solutions, which involve governments, businesses and consumers alike. Governments might, for example, locate secondary markets, including schools and other public facilities, for surplus as well as off-grade produce. Businesses might be more flexible with the orders they place, requesting “plums or other best stone fruit” rather than “plums” alone. And consumers might overlook a few blemishes and bumps on their fruits and vegetables. As one farmer lamented, “If we picked our friends the way we selectively picked and culled our produce, we’d be very lonely.”
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