When it comes to solving food waste, as with any environmental issue, it’s important to always look upstream at the root causes. Not only does this tell you what’s causing us to waste so much food, but it also shows what types of changes will have the biggest impact. For example, if you found that in your own home, you ended up throwing out half of your fresh fruits and veggies each week, you would have dozens of ways to address this problem. You could start composting your leftovers instead of throwing them away, you could find creative recipes like smoothies and frittatas to use up your extras, or you could even donate them to a friend or family member in need. Yet if the root cause was the fact that you were simply buying more kale and apples than your family could realistically eat in a week, none of these solutions would really address the root cause: a surplus of fruits and veggies.
The same is true of food waste at a national level. One of the main reasons that so much waste happens is due to one of the most misunderstood phenomena in agriculture: surplus. From an outside perspective, it can seem all too easy to just blame surplus on farmers. If we’re growing so much food that we can leave 33% of our crops unpicked in our fields and waste 40% of it every year, shouldn’t they just plant less food? Indeed, if addressing surplus is one of the most important things we can do to turn around food waste, why haven’t we found a way to do this yet?
As with most issues where agriculture and business collide, the reality is a lot more interesting and more complicated than any juicy headline or talking point might suggest. Imperfect has been buying and selling surplus food for over 4 years, and through lengthy discussions with our supply team and conversations with farmers, we’ve learned that there are several markets and environmental factors currently forcing farmers to grow a surplus every year. Understanding these factors can help us be more compassionate towards farmers and better relate to the challenges they face each season. Hopefully, it can also help individuals, nonprofits, businesses, and elected officials make smarter and more targeted interventions to address food waste in their communities. So why do we have so much surplus produce in the first place?
Surplus Lessens the Economic Risk of the Harvest
While the market demands food at precise times and in precise quantities, farmers are perpetually negotiating dozens of variables like weather, labor availability, and trucking prices that affect their ability to get food out of their fields and into the markets. Since it’s almost impossible to have a steady crop yield that’s timed perfectly to what markets need, most farms overplant to hedge their bets against bad weather, pests, and other factors that limit their yields and make it harder to deliver on their contracts with supermarkets. Since supermarkets also often refuse to buy produce for being the wrong shape or size, this forces farmers to overplant even more.
Seasonality Inherently Creates a Surplus in a Supermarket Economy
These days everyone likes to talk about eating seasonally, but we seldom think about how our seasonal preferences affect farmers. When you go to the store to buy a head of lettuce, what you might not realize is that farmers all across the Americas (and beyond) have to do a relay race each season from North to South and back again to keep lettuce heads on the shelves year-round. This means that as the season is winding down in one growing region, like Yuma, Arizona, it’s also simultaneously beginning in another area like Salinas, California. If this lettuce baton pass is mistimed due to weather or poor planting schedules, lettuce will briefly be unavailable (or very expensive), a phenomenon that’s known as a “gap.” To prevent gapping and keep consumers happy with the price of lettuce, most regions overlap their harvest times, which means that during transitions, or “shoulder seasons,” one region might be finishing up their harvest while another is starting theirs. As regions overlap, the market will be flooded with that commodity. If there’s too much overlap, growers will often not pick the surplus since they know there won’t be a demand for it, resulting in waste in the fields,
Consumer Preferences Create Surplus
Stores entice consumers to buy fresh produce with Instagram-ready piles and pyramids of fruits and vegetables that you’ve no doubt seen at your local supermarket. To build these works of agricultural architecture, retail stores are strict about the shapes and sizes of the fruits and veggies they’ll buy, despite the fact that fields and trees naturally produce fruits and vegetables in a wide range of shapes and sizes. This means that some times of the year, the sizes that stores want are simply less available. This, in turn, causes a surplus of the sizes they’re not buying like small and large items. For example, fruit harvested later on in the season might be larger from having been on the tree longer, while the first batch of Brussels picked off the stalks might be smaller than later harvests.
Another consumer preference that drives waste is our tendency to buy trendy, seasonal items during very narrow windows of time. While retail grocery stores only focus on winter squash in the winter and eggplant in the summer, both are grown year-round in order to guarantee supply, resulting in surpluses during the “low” season. A great example is Mandarin oranges, which are in trees for months, despite being heavily hyped by retail for only a few weeks in December.
Weather is Never Predictable
Sometimes, despite a farmer’s best-laid plans, Mother Nature has other ideas. If the weather is warmer than expected in a productive region like the Imperial Valley or the Columbia River Gorge, it can force growers to harvest early. If a grower doesn’t have enough orders to justify harvesting everything, they may just leave some of it in the field, since it doesn’t make economic sense to pay laborers to harvest something that they may not have a buyer lined up for. It’s not just warm weather that causes this, however. Since extremely wet weather can turn fields into mud pits that are impossible to harvest, and also cause fruit to mold or rot on the trees, growers will often also rush to harvest what they have in advance of a big storm arriving, just to make sure that they beat the rain to the punch. These storm-induced harvests cause unplanned, intense gluts of whatever commodity the weather forced farmers to pick all at once.
So where does that leave us?
Surplus is the macro-economic version of a “first-world problem.” We are blessed with an agricultural system that is so productive that it literally grows more food than we can realistically eat right now. While at first, it might be easy to blame this overproduction on poor planning by farmers, once you dig into the root causes, the bigger culprit is how supermarkets demand somewhat unrealistic amounts of choice and abundance for their consumers (like you and me) year-round. Since the majority of our farmers grow to meet their contracts with big grocery outlets, it’s the buying preferences of these outlets that continue to shape what and how much they’re growing.
We’ve learned this first-hand since we’re often the first phone call a grower will make after they realize they have product that they won’t be able to sell through the traditional channels of our supermarket economy. At Imperfect, we work with growers all over the country to find a flexible and lucrative outlet for this surplus and ugly food that’s literally the by-product of our incredibly productive yet sadly inefficient food system. We’re doing our best to ensure that nothing falls through the cracks, but we too are at the mercy of the larger economic forces that control what goes into the ground and comes out of our fields. Until these forces let farmers plant, harvest, and market their produce more efficiently, waste in the form of surplus is unfortunately inevitable.