Left to Rot in the Fields
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, approximately one-third of all food produced globally for human consumption is wasted (about 1.3 billion tonnes). Additionally, approximately 45% of fruit and vegetable crops grown annually get wasted. Such food waste occurs on all levels of the food system, from the farmer, to the harvester, to the processer, to the retailer, and finally to the consumer. Different reasons for food wastage occur at each different level in the food system (and I encourage you to explore some of these reasons in the UN FAO report’s key findings). Among the many reasons for food wastage is the large scale economics of modern agriculture—in other words, in developed nations such as the United States and Australia, large quantities of crops need to be efficiently processed in order to fit the mechanized and standardized rigor of the industrial food system. With a food system as large and agglomerated as it is, business decisions tend to happen on a large scale for economic reasons. A great quantity of food, thus, is liable to fall through the cracks and add to the overall waste in the food system. Though my knowledge is still rudimentary, my recent experiences as a harvester on cherry and lychee farms have given me a bit of insight into how much food gets wasted on the agricultural side of the food system. This has also led me to speculate on ways to reduce food waste and divert some instead to better uses.
As I mentioned before in an earlier blog post, “Life is (not) Always a Bowl of Cherries”, the fruit at one cherry farm I was picking at suffered extensive damage from steady rain during the harvest season. The primary rain damage entailed split tops where the cherries swelled to the point where the skin burst, and a blue mold was growing on some dense clusters of damaged cherries as well. Cherries with this type of damage are unfit for commercial markets. The delicate skin of the cherry is the fruit’s protective barrier to the agents of the outside world. Once compromised, the cherries will only remain edible for a few more days. However, from my estimate after continuing to pick at the farm, less than one quarter of cherries had been affected by any sort of damage at all—the rest of the cherries survived intact and were suitable for market. Yet, the fruit packer which was buying the cherries from the farm as a bulk commodity decided that there was not a high enough percentage of good fruit to continue to buy the farm’s fruit at the agreed upon rate. Resultingly, although most of the fruit on the trees was still marketable, all of the fruit remaining on the trees was sentenced to rot in the orchard. One large-scale economic move by a large-scale fruit packer resulted in a waste of tonnes of cherries—all because it wasn’t economically efficient to sort the good fruit from the bad.
As word at the farm got spread amoung the orchard rows that that picking operations were to cease immediately because the farm had suddenly lost the buyer for its fruit, I started picking cherries directly into my backpack to take home with me. If the fruit was not destined to be sold at market, I at least wanted to put it to good use (i.e., eating it myself). So I took the good fruit along with the bad. I for one am not fussy if a cherry has a split top, and I’m not too proud to cut a bad spot out of a cherry before eating it (but I also have a long history of salvaging food out of dumpsters too). After all, blemished fruit is still perfectly edible if the blemish is small and easily excisable. My backpack full of cherries allowed me to at least reduce some food wastage by vastly reducing the scale of the economic decisions being made–to the scale ranging my bag of cherries to my mouth. The economy was whether I thought it worthwhile to eat each individual cherry or not. At this scale, I was able to examine every cherry I consumed for its merit, rather than dismissing the crop wholesale—the good fruit with the bad.
Rain damage is not the only thing that will make a cherry unacceptable for market. If a cherry is picked without its stem, that cherry most likely cannot be sold. Again, the skin is the cherry’s protective layer to the outside world, and if the stem is removed an entryway for decay is created. Though the fruit itself is every bit the same, stemless cherries differ in that they do not stay fresh as long as cherries with stems. For this reason, cherry pickers are chastised above all else about picking cherries off of their stems (but as some level of food waste is inevitable, knocking a few cherries off of their stems is essentially unavoidable). At one export farm I picked at, I was greatly perturbed when I saw a supervisor sifting through my lugs of cherries and throwing the stemless ones on the ground. Those were big, beautiful cherries thrown dispassionately into the mud. After seeing this, I felt personally convicted to eat every cherry that popped off its stem, just so those cherries wouldn’t face a similar wasteful fate. My mission in this manner proved utterly impossible, as one person himself cannot eliminate food waste. But I just couldn’t help but wonder: so many of the local cherries sold in the supermarket were without stems. Could it be that stemless cherries will stay fresh long enough to make it into the local markets but are only unfit for export?
In comparison to cherries, the lychee farm I picked at operated on a smaller scale. The farm itself was a few hundred acres and differed most notably in terms of packing operations: all lychees harvested were packed on-site rather than shipping the ungraded fruit to a large packhouse. By operating this way, the lychee farm significantly reduced the scope of the harvesting and processing stages of the food system. Amoung my responsibilities as a harvest labourer on the lychee farm, I assisted with the packing of the fruit. This allowed me to see how the freshly harvested crop gets graded and prepared for export. Unlike cherries which are graded and sorted completely by a machine, lychees on my farm were graded entirely by hand. Each piece of fruit has to make its way past six sets of eyes and hands on its journey to a 5-kilogram box for export. Not every lychee picked in the orchard makes it into a box, however, and the graders are quick to toss out any piece of fruit that is not up to export standards. Some fruits are rejected because they have been damaged, such as broken skin or insect holes. Yet, other fruits are rejected because of cosmetic reasons—some spotting, just a bit off-color, ‘doubled’ fruit, etc. The greater part of these lychee rejects are still perfectly edible, and at the end of the day the lychee workers can take home as many of the reject lychees as desired. Not all of the reject fruit will be taken home though, and the rest gets thrown into the compost pile. Still the amount of fruit thrown out is smaller than a garbage bin full, and that’s not a bad quantity for a farm that processes more than 4 tonnes of lychees per day. Having each fruit examined by hand can reduce the amount of fruit wasted, and packing the fruit in the location where it is picked also reduces the amount of fruit damaged in the process of transportation.
When I lived in Moscow, Idaho, I volunteered for a local food bank non-profit called Backyard Harvest. This charity, with its local scope and volunteer power, worked on a much smaller economic scale than commercial food producers. Backyard Harvest collected excess food grown by area residents and redistributed that produce to local citizens in need of food security. I spent many hours in small backyard orchards gleaning fruit off of trees and sorting out the bad produce from that which was perfectly edible. Large food conglomerates wouldn’t even bother going through such lengths to deal with such small quantities of food. But with the power of volunteers, we were able to reduce food waste and provide healthy produce to people as well.
Non-profit organizations such as Backyard Harvest rely on the goodwill of volunteers to stem food waste and combat food insecurity. But lots of opportunity for commercial enterprise exists within the cracks of the current food system as well. Thinking again to the cherry farm I was at when the call to cease picking operations was heralded, my labour contractor Damien hatched up a plan to profit off of the massive waste. If the big fruit packer didn’t want to buy the fruit, then the small operation of Damien and his harvest crew would become economically appealing. Damien would offer the farm a modest price to take a few hundred kilograms off their hands (after all, getting some money for the fruit would be better than getting no money at all) and have his harvest crew hand-sort the good and bad cherries in the field. We would have driven the cherries from the Australian countryside into the bustling market of Sydney, and sold cherries at Bondi Beach over New Years. This hypothetical enterprise would have been a self-contained business operation, where we would have picked, packed, transported, and sold the cherries ourselves. All operations would have been handled locally and on a small scale by a few workers with the will and willpower to make something viable off of something wasteful. (As an aside, this business idea of Damien’s was never attempted).
If agricultural business ventures aren’t too large, then they can afford to sort through things at smaller scales. As a result, less food is bound to get wasted. This sounds like a good idea to me.
Learn more about the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s findings on food waste here.