Food Waste and Profitable Farming

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One might wonder how profitable farming and throwing away most of the tomato harvest grown on a commercial farm go hand in hand. We’re not talking about diseased or damaged fruits, but highly edible tomatoes with slight imperfections. These kinds of stories usually come from the United States. But this most recent report of over 80% of the tomatoes grown on a farm being left to rot in the field took place in Queensland, Australia. Rather surprising. Especially when the imperfections were only a little too small, a little too big, or a little less round.

How can a farmer make any money if only 20-30% of his fruit or vegetable harvest is sold? For starters, tomatoes are the world’s most popular fruit, outselling even bananas. People will pay quite a handsome sum for a tomato. Especially outside the growing season, which makes the pale, crunchy, tasteless things highly profitable farming indeed.

Why not turn the imperfect fresh market tomatoes into packaged foods? They’re not even fit for processing. They lack the flavor and acidity food manufacturers need for juice, sauce, soups, frozen entrees, or canned tomato production. Besides, processing tomatoes sell for less.

tomato farmBy the way, it’s not because of the season that market tomatoes have no aroma or flavor. They’re bred to produce exactly what you find offered in your local stores. Because flavor means sugars, which do not ship well without damage or provide incredibly long shelf life. Such tomatoes also must have thick skins to make the journey of 1,000-2,000 miles of no consequence to its visual perfection. Breeding like this may promote retailer and farm profitability, but is also likely the reason for tomatoes with viviparous tendencies growing more common. Which in turn, increases food waste at home.

Add world trade to the quotient and you’ve got a good number of giant agribusinesses with plump coffers. Why else would anyone bother shipping from Mexico to Chicago; Florida to Milwaukee; Netherlands to Edinburgh; Australia to Taiwan? Even though they regularly throw out more of the fruits produced in their fields and greenhouses than makes its way to market. You think consumers aren’t paying for what they don’t sell? Think again! The cost per pound you pay at the store definitely reflects it.

Crop losses always create price hikes at the consumer level, whether real or strategic. Like this 82% imperfect tomato loss in Queensland where workers picked only the “perfect” fruits. Is it really a loss or still profitable farming when your crop insurance provider pays the current market value of the lost portion of your harvest? So, why bother to incur the costs of harvesting fruits and vegetables that won’t fetch premium prices? It’s more profitable to let them rot in the field!

In the US, specialized marketing groups go out of their way to keep fruit and vegetable prices inflated. A bumper crop year isn’t good at all. They control farm profitability by wasting a set amount per farm. Staging a crop loss, like the cherry dumping debacle in Michigan last summer. Wasting perfectly edible food at the farm level while millions go hungry, even in the richest countries! It’s not a necessity that the food is a tad imperfect, as the cherry saga revealed.

tomato farm

Australian farm tosses 84% of edible tomato harvest.

The World Atlas gives global tomato production at 170 million tons in 2017;  a commercial food crop trumped only by potatoes. How many more million tons should that tally really be because the senseless dumping of imperfect fruits is not being counted. According to National Geographic, South Florida’s tomato farms waste a whopping 396,000 tons of their winter harvests annually. Just one state! So, the world tally is likely many times to recorded size of yearly production.

No, we do not have a problem producing enough food to feed the world by 2030. We have a problem with food availability and grocer and farm profitability controlling people being able to afford to eat. We’ve had so much glut in production for decades that it’s perfectly okay to dump most of what each farm produces to keep prices high and supply low. Even though it costs each country’s economy billions annually.

Meanwhile, farm profitability is more important than the fresh water wasted in bringing all those imperfect tomatoes, peppers, lettuces, citrus and what have you to the harvest stage. So, it’s far bigger and more senseless than simple food waste. Dwindling natural resources, farm runoff pollution, and a number of other connected environmental issues all needlessly increased.

How messed up is that? Far surpassing a broken food system.



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On a mission to get to the bottom of things, Agent Green digs far and wide in the pursuit of truth.