(This post originally appeared on "Red Green and Blue" on 10/20/10. I'm going to be giving a talk next week to the Ontario fruit and vegetable growers on this subject. These are some of the points that I will be making. For a full list of links to my blogs on various sites click here)
There are lots of well intended efforts underway to increase the "sustainability" of fresh fruit and vegetable production. This includes a recent announcement from Wal-Mart saying that they want to use their influence in the market to drive positive change.
All these efforts focus on how efficiently farmers use land, fertilizer, fuel, electricity, water and pesticides. While those things are certainly important, there is a another critical dimension that is unique to the sustainability of perishable commodities: whether they ever get eaten.
For a variety of reasons, crops that already generated environmental footprints (carbon emissions, energy, water, land, labor...) never end up being consumed by people to get the health and diet benefits that justify growing them in the first place. There is certainly nothing "sustainable" about that. Correcting these issues is really the "low hanging fruit" when it comes to increasing the sustainability of this sector. I'll describe some of the major reasons for this sort of waste.
False QualityEveryone has had the experience of buying something like table grapes that look really good, and then finding that they are not actually sweet at all. They then tend to sit in the refrigerator until mold gives you the excuse to get rid of them (hopefully not to the landfill!).
This happens because of a very basic problem for fruit marketing as practiced today. The grower gets the best prices at the beginning of the season when supply is scarce and quality is low. By the time the quality is there, the market gets swamped, the price drops, and the grower is lucky to break even.
Fixing this would require a different sort of contracting process (not opportunistic buying) and institution of higher taste quality standards. A cooperative packer/retailer partnership could address this sustainability issue. Tell your grocer you wish they would set higher sugar standards and work with their suppliers to make that work economically for them.
Extreme Cosmetic StandardsThere is an old saying that produce is sold by appearance, not flavor. For example, the price that a farmer gets for apples depends on color, size and shape.
There are lots of apples that are perfectly good in terms of flavor and nutrition, but they are small, slightly misshapen, or otherwise fail to meet purely cosmetic standards. Some of those apples end up in extremely low value and reduced nutrition uses like juice, sauce or sweeteners (all markets which have been completely under-cut by Chinese imports).
It would take a change of attitude/practice by retailers and consumers (and actually in USDA standards), but we could be making a more sustainable use of this fruit. We could probably lower the overall price and increase consumption. Tell your grocer you would be willing to buy "ugly" fruit or vegetables so they don't have to be wasted.
Mishandling In The Distribution ChainHave you ever bitten into a beautiful looking peach only to find it mealy and tasteless? That is because somewhere between the grower and you it was held at a "killing temperature," around 50° F.
This often happens in distribution centers or the back of the grocery store where there is a compromise to deal with fruits and vegetable that actually have very different needs for ideal storage.
Selling ruined fruit is certainly not a"sustainable practice" Tell you grocer that you want "conditioned" stone fruit that has been kept at the right temperatures.
Failed Pest ControlMany people assume that the most sustainable produce would be that grown with the fewest pesticides. In fact, farmers already have strong cost incentives to only use pesticides as needed.
Organic growers use pesticides as well, and some of their options are less desirable than modern synthetic options. Sometimes pest outbreaks get out of control and there is enough damage that it isn't even worth harvesting the field. All the resources used up to that point are just wasted, but harvesting costs are avoided (often the most expensive single step).
This is actually more common on Organic farms because the list of natural product pesticide options is limited (by philosophy, not objective safety). Organic produce also has a higher rate of "shrink" in distribution and in the store (mold...).
There is nothing particularly sustainable about feeding insects and fungi after investing farming inputs. Pesticides are often the way that all the other resource investments in a crop are protected.
ConclusionsIf we are going to demand that farmers grow fresh produce in a sustainable way, it is only fair that we consider what complimentary changes can be made in the rest of the food chain and also by consumers. Some fresh produce is always going to be lost - it is a "perishable" commodity. But there are some very significant sources of waste that could be reduced.
"Sustainable produce" isn't just the responsibility of the farmer - its really up to everyone involved in marketing it, and everyone who wants to benefit from this healthy and delightful category of food.
You are welcome to comment here or to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Asian pear image from Steve Savage)