Farm Waste

The Silver Bullet For Ending Food Waste On The Farm

Technology has made great in-roads in reducing food waste from the farm. But it is only a start.

by Ted Genoways
Solving Food Waste

An estimated 30 percent of produce in America never makes it off the farm. That means that for every two heads of iceberg lettuce shipped to a grocery store, one is left to rot. Likewise, for every two bunches of spinach or celery, for every two ears of sweet corn, for every pair of tomatoes, one is allowed to sit unharvested.

In the race to reduce such food waste, some farmers are turning to technologies to conserve resources and cut losses before produce even leaves the farm. They are using composting systems and anaerobic digesters to turn waste into fertilizer for the next planting. To improve those systems, agri-engineers are working on “recycling robots” to sort edible food from waste more accurately. And there is also a significant effort going into developing artificial intelligence programs to do everything from identifying and monitoring points of waste in the production process to analyzing demand patterns to increase or reduce production according to anticipated needs across the supply chain. Coupling these kinds of technologies with more precise data on field productivity could have a significant impact on the reduction of food waste on the farm.

But technology only gets us so far. We’re not likely to engineer our way out of this problem. First, there needs to be a cultural shift on the farm — away from treating food distribution as a commodities market that often leads to trimming input costs through much cheaper means than new technologies. Most often, those cut corners come in the form of labor abuses.

Tens of millions of dollars of tomatoes were left to rot because they were worth more money rotting in the ground.

Take the tomato harvest as an example. More than half of domestically raised fresh market tomatoes are grown in Florida, and roughly 90 percent of the domestic winter crop is grown there. Why? Because field labor costs are much lower in Florida than most other warm-climate states. But concentrating production makes the crop vulnerable. In 2010, a single freeze in Florida wiped out 80 percent of the tomato crop. Producers who were struggling to survive that incident had to cut their input costs somewhere — and farm owners were often willing to employ wage theft and shocking labor practices as a way of making up the difference. In fact, between 1997 and 2012, the Department of Justice prosecuted seven cases of slavery in Florida’s fields — four involving tomato pickers. In one such case in 2008, employers were sentenced to 12 years each on charges of involuntary servitude and peonage after they were found beating workers and chaining them up inside a locked box truck at night to keep them from leaving.

Other cases across the country are less horrifying but no less revealing of the systemic problem. In 2018, a hydroponic tomato growing operation in O’Neill, Nebraska, was raided after Immigration and Customs Enforcement found that the owners had set up a shell company to bring undocumented workers to the property and hold them in involuntary servitude. The special agent in charge of the raid explained that undocumented employees were required to pay a fee to cash their paychecks and have taxes deducted — though those deductions were never paid to the government — and then were coerced into remaining quiet about the scheme. The business, the agent said at the time, was “knowingly hiring illegal workers to unlawfully line their own pockets by cheating the workers, cheating the taxpayers, and cheating their business competitors.” It’s that last part that has what may be an unexpected effect on food waste.

Think back to that freeze in Florida in 2010. When growers replanted in the spring, they were up against a glut of farms trying to capitalize on the short-term increase in prices. But for legitimate tomato growers who were competing against other farmers who had little to no labor costs at all, the challenge of making a profit was that much greater — and, when that overproduction actually created a massive surplus, prices plummeted. In his book, Tomatoland, Barry Estabrook records that growers could suddenly only expect $3.50 for a 25-pound box of tomatoes — less than the total cost to pick and pack them. Tens of millions of dollars of tomatoes were left to rot. Not because there was anything wrong with them. Not because they were blighted. Not because they had been infested with insects. No, just because it wasn’t profitable to bring a perfectly healthy crop to market if you had to pay your labor force a fair wage and provide them with safe working conditions. They were worth more money rotting in the ground.

“It was a double-whammy,” an industry representative told Estabrook at the time. “We got hit when we lost the crop. Growers who had invested millions of dollars got nothing in return. And once there were no longer any Florida tomatoes on the market, prices soared to over $20 a box. Mexicans weren’t affected by the freeze and they made a killing.” Unsurprisingly, this has led to more and more cold-sensitive crops being grown in year-round warm climates outside the United States. Today, nearly 70 percent of tomatoes consumed in the U.S. are produced in Mexico. But it doesn’t end there. Ninety percent of our avocados and broccoli also come from Mexico. Half of our blueberries come from Peru. Nearly half of our grapes are imported, mostly from Peru and Chile. At the same time, domestic production has declined. Over the last 25 years, total U.S. production of oranges, for example, has fallen by 80 percent. Now, more than a third of all oranges consumed worldwide are grown in Brazil.

For American consumers, that keeps prices low — but also means that labor abuses are allowed to continue by simply offshoring the problem. The tomato industry, again, is an illustrative example. In 2019, a Guardian investigation documented the widespread use of enslaved laborers from war-torn regions in north Africa in the tomato and tomato sauce industry in Italy. In 2021, the Biden administration began blocking the import of tomatoes from two large Mexican growers accused of using forced labor. And while labor abuses are repeated — or even made worse — by moving production to other countries, the shift is also worsening the problem of food waste, as the problem of overproduction and crops being left to rot amid the surplus is also offshored. Last year, in the Cordillera Administrative Region of the Philippines, farmers harvested but then dumped whole fields of tomatoes, due to crashing prices. Right now, Australian farmers are dumping crops after non-binding grocery store orders created oversupply. “Our biggest customer is the rubbish bin,” one vegetable grower told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in March.

We’ve long shifted environmental stress to other countries in order to prop up our cheap food supply.

Even when these products do make it to shipment, increasingly long supply chains mean that roughly one-third of all food produced around the world is now lost or wasted before it reaches consumers. So two tomatoes grown in Mexico still statistically represent one left to rot in the field — but now also means that another is wasted in transport. For every bite of food, another bite has been lost along the way. And because of the distance that wasted food has traveled, wasted food is estimated to account for nearly 10 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. This creates a deadly loop — with increased losses forcing greater production and greater pressure to prop up the production of fossil fuels, in the name of protecting our food supply. But continuing with this system only speeds climate change and reduces the areas of arable soil available to feed a growing global population. We’ve long shifted environmental stress to other countries in order to prop up our cheap food supply — but the scale of the destruction is now worldwide. There’s no escaping it.

Some solutions are simple and local. Organizations like Community Harvest SRQ, a nonprofit organization near Sarasota, Florida, mobilizes volunteers to pick unharvested fruits and vegetables from area farms and then donates everything to local charities. The impact is measurable. On one recent day, volunteers, in baseball caps and gardening gloves, harvested more than 3,000 pounds of farm-fresh tomatoes and zucchini from the Enza Zaden research station in Myakka, Florida, and donated everything to the Food Bank of Manatee. “We’re the missing link,” the group’s executive director told NPR. But this kind of ground-level organizing only goes so far. After all, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that roughly 80 million tons of food is wasted each year. To meaningfully address a problem so large will require federal-level policy solutions.

Stricter enforcement of existing laws forbidding the importation of goods produced using slave labor, in combination with consistent prosecution of employers who hire undocumented farm workers, would put all employers on an equal footing, ensuring that labor abuses are not a way of reducing input costs. This is, in effect, what the Biden administration pushed for this past November when directing federal departments and agencies to advance labor rights abroad. In practice, however, the pursuance of violations become a sort of game of Whac-A-Mole. When a crackdown occurs, another form of labor abuse pops up in another location.

If we can pair these kinds of cultural change with the technological advances ... then the chance of meaningfully reducing food waste ... will be greatly increased.

The next step would be to open a pathway to citizenship for farmworkers — a policy change that would encourage migrant labor to enter the U.S. with on-farm work as a priority. This would ensure a stable workforce for growers, making harvests more predictable and affordable. Shay Myers, a self-described “staunch conservative” and owner of a three-generation family farm on the Oregon-Idaho border, wrote in the Washington Post that he would support this move. “My farm routinely has trouble finding workers,” he wrote. “There just aren’t enough people in the United States, immigrant or not, willing to do the work.”

Acknowledging that reality and insisting that workers are treated fairly will reduce on-farm food waste — while also making markets fairer for conscientious producers, keeping profits within local economies, reducing our fossil fuel footprint, and, more than likely, reducing hunger and poverty. If we can pair these kinds of cultural change with the technological advances that are already happening, then the chance of meaningfully reducing food waste and conserving the necessary resources to feed a growing population on an ever-warming planet will be greatly increased.

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