Study finds farm-level food waste worse than previously thought – from Civil Eats

By Gosia Wozniacka

Last year, Cannon Michael left over 100 acres of ripe cantaloupes unharvested. The sixth generation grower could not justify paying workers to pick them all because the cost of labor, packing, and, shipping would have been more than the price he could get for the fruit.

And so, he left about 30 percent of his perfectly edible cantaloupes to decompose and get churned back into the ground.

“It was very frustrating to grow a high-quality product and have to leave it in the fields,” said Michael, the president/CEO of Bowles Farming Company, which grows 300 to 400 acres of cantaloupes in Los Banos, California, every season, in addition to hundreds of acres of watermelon, tomatoes, and cotton. “If the pricing drops,” due to oversupply or other reasons, said Michael, “there’s a certain economic threshold that just doesn’t justify harvesting the crop.”

Michael’s experience, it turns out, is fairly typical. According to a new ground-breaking study about on-farm food loss from Santa Clara University, a whopping one third of edible produce—or 33.7 percent—remains unharvested in the fields and gets disked under. This is a much larger percentage than previously reported—and it may end up dramatically increasing the current estimate of overall food waste in the U.S.—which until now has been long tallied at 40 percent.

Most research on food loss and food waste has focused on post-harvest, retail, and consumer levels. The new study offers a far more accurate look at on-farm food loss by relying on in-field measurements. Most other studies have used less reliable grower surveys to estimate produce left in fields and put the percent of on-farm loss closer to 20 percent.

“We’re very excited for this data to come out,” Greg Baker, the study’s author and executive director of the Center for Food Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University, told Civil Eats. “There is a lack of awareness by consumers about how large of a problem this is at the farm level.” He added that the study corroborated the scenarios that he and his colleagues had been observing the fields for a while.

“This study should serve as a wake-up call,” said Dana Gunders, a food waste expert and advisor, formerly at the Natural Resources Defense Council and behind its seminal 2012 food waste report, Wasted. “It provides a map in terms of where we should look for opportunities to minimize food loss, and it helps us understand that it’s not as easy as farmers leaving food in the fields and we should just go get it.”

The Scale of the Problem

Food loss and food waste have become major concerns in recent years. It’s a humanitarian issue, with an estimated 40 million Americans food insecure.

At the same time, food waste is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing 8 percent of total global emissions and at least 2.6 percent of all U.S. emissions. If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitting country in the world, after China and the U.S.

Ironically, the earlier the food loss occurs in the chain of production, sale, and consumption, the better, experts say. While no farmer likes plowing perfectly good melons, artichokes, or lettuce back into the earth, the decomposing produce provides nutrients for next season’s crop. But once produce is harvested, packed, and sent to a warehouse, and there’s no market for it, it often heads to the landfill, where it releases greenhouse gases.

Still, even when the loss occurs at the field level, it still requires plenty of water, land, fertilizer, pesticides in many cases, and agricultural labor. ReFED, a coalition of nonprofits, businesses, and government agencies that fight food loss and food waste, estimates that 21 percent of water, 18 percent of cropland, and 19 percent of fertilizer in the U.S. are dedicated to food that is never eaten.

Farmers Trapped in a Broken System

The new study measured the loss of 20 hand-harvested crops in 123 fields on mid- to large-size conventional California farms. It found that food loss varied depending on the crop, and even on the variety of produce. (Produce that was damaged by disease, rot, pests, or machinery was not included in the measurements.)

Partial harvests were typical, the study found. The lowest losses were for tomatoes, sweet corn, and artichokes, though a significant amount of produce was still left in the fields. Some of the highest losses were for watermelon at 57 percent, cabbage at 52 percent, strawberries at 44 percent, and kale at 39 percent. By far the highest waste, at 113 percent (meaning more is lost than sold), occurred with romaine hearts, where all of the outer leaves were left in the fields.

“Anyone who has watched a romaine hearts harvest has had their heart broken,” said Gunders, who was not involved with the study.

The study also points out that growers often have little control over how much produce is lost. Unlike with retail and consumer-level food loss, farm-level loss is the product of a complex mix of forces that include field stability (how quickly a crop matures and how long it can stay in the field before going bad), weather, pests and plant diseases, labor availability, market prices, and buyer specifications for how produce should look and feel like.

Farmers grow mostly under contract with wholesalers and retailers and have to deliver what those contracts specify. Most plant 25-30 percent more than the contract specifies because of all the variables listed above. But it can also lead to a lot of excess produce.

“People say all this food is rotting in the fields, why don’t the farmers make it available? Farmers have been demonized. They didn’t design the system and they are not the villains,” said Greg Baker. Due to liability issues and food safety rules, most farmers don’t let the public come to harvest crops in the fields. A few organizations, such as Farm to Pantry, do organize teams of volunteers to glean produce on farms after the harvest, but the numbers of farmers who participate are small and volunteers can be hard to find.

According to Baker, growers who participated in the study were surprised to learn just how much food was being left behind. Along with measuring the amount of unharvested edible food—collected directly behind harvest crews—the study also surveyed growers about how much they thought was being lost. In the end, the measured loss was on average 2.5 times more than what the growers had estimated.

Harvest decisions are partially dictated by nature. “If something isn’t ready or ripe, or isn’t big enough, it’s not getting picked,” said Danny Royer with Great Valley Oak, an organization that improves farming efficiency with technology. “You want to be able to send the crew one time and pick as much as possible,” Royer said. (Some crops require multiple harvests.) Bruised or “ugly” produce is also passed by.

But the most important variable driving grower decisions is the cost of labor. The tight ag labor market has already driven up wages, but California now also requires more overtime pay for farmworkers. And the state’s minimum wage is due to increase gradually from $12 per hour to $15 by 2023.

When an oversupply or a food-safety scare leads to rock-bottom prices, it’s cheaper to till it in and start fresh. Even when prices are higher, Royer said, growers limit labor expenses by asking workers to pick only the best quality produce.

“The percentage of harvest is very dependent on the market,” Royer said. “If market prices aren’t great, we’re not going to go gang buster and pick a bunch of boxes.”

A Range of Solutions Are Possible

For some growers, it’s worth donating their produce to food banks in order to earn tax incentives. Bowles Farming Company did this with some of its watermelons last year and the company was able to write off part of its losses, which made it financially viable to harvest and pack the produce, said Michael, the company’s CEO.

The California Association of Food Banks works with about 200 such growers. The fruits or vegetables are picked up directly from packing sheds (in some cases, directly from the farm) and immediately delivered to food banks in the western region, said Steve Linkhart, director of the Association’s Farm to Family program. Last year, the program shipped 164 million pounds of fruits and veggies; in July, the organization hit a record with 16 million pounds in a single month. “Anything out there that’s edible, we do whatever we can to get it to someone who can eat it,” Linkhart said.

Dozens of similar programs operate around the country, including the Borderlands Produce Rescue and the Community Food Bank in Arizona, which rescue surplus produce at the port entry of Nogales.

Still, growers can write off only a percentage of what they donate. And they say setting up the logistics of culling excess produce is complicated and costly. So, labor-intensive crops such as broccoli, cauliflower, and celery, which growers used to donate in droves, are no longer making it to food banks, Linkhart said.

“It’s sad because they grow this produce, their dads and grandfathers grew it. It’s their life and they have to stand and watch it get tilled under,” he added.

Companies including Imperfect Produce and Hungry Harvest are also trying to move the needle by delivering “ugly” produce at a discount, directly to customers. Though the approach has promise, growers say the volume rescued is relatively small so far. Some critics also suggest the companies are incentivizing farmers to overproduce to meet the demand of the ugly produce movement. Others worry that it is displacing community supported agriculture and other smaller-scale subscription services in the marketplace.

Full Harvest, a company that connects the producers of things like juice, kimchi, and baby food directly with farms to buy imperfect and surplus produce using an online B2B marketplace, offers another solution. It contracts with processors who can cover the farmers’ labor costs while paying less for produce.

“As people start waking up to the reality that food waste contributes to climate change, any company that says they’re buying surplus produce sends a powerful message. They’re helping (to reduce) one of the greatest contributors to climate change,” said Christine Moseley, founder and CEO of Full Harvest.

The most powerful changes, according to experts and growers, could happen at the retail level. Bowles Farming Company CEO Michael says he’d like to see a streamlined supply chain. Growers could work with local retailers and plant a set number of acres at a guaranteed price (currently, they work with marketing agents and the price isn’t set).

Another idea is for retailers to buy entire fields from growers so that they would own the entire crop, said Baker, the study’s author. This could incentivize more supermarket chains to create imperfect or grade B produce sections (several already do). The retailer could also process the imperfect or surplus produce into salsa, juices, and other value-added products for use in its own private label.

“What we really need is new ideas, a different way of thinking about it. Right now, all the players do what makes economic sense for them,” Baker said.

But buying and marketing imperfect produce at a discount isn’t ideal, said Gunders. “It doesn’t cost any less to get this product to market,” she said. “The idea that it should be discounted is a little flawed.”

Gunders wants to see the cosmetically perfect and the “imperfect” pieces sold together. “We should have different shapes and colors of peaches, for example, because that’s what peaches do, that’s how peaches grow. It’s the mixed beauty that nature provides,” she said. “Imperfect produce needs to go through the main channel for more of it to be accepted. The farms are massive and that’s the only way we will sell more product and move the needle on food loss.”

Link to story in Civil Eats

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CDFA on the radio to discuss Produce Safety Rule

CDFA’s Michelle Phillips recently appeared on KSTE radio’s “Farm Hour” program, with host Fred Hoffman, to discuss the FDA’s Produce Safety Rule in addition to the Food Safety Modernization Act and CDFA’s role in education and enforcement in California.

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#CDFACentennial – Centennial Reflections video series with Secretary Karen Ross

The California Department of Food and Agriculture is celebrating its 100th anniversary as a state agency in 2019. Throughout the year this blog will feature a number of items to commemorate this milestone. Today we continue with the Centennial Reflections video series, featuring CDFA employees remembering their histories, and the agency’s.

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Video – Climate Smart Agriculture and CDFA’s Alternative Manure Management Program

The Alternative Manure Management Program (AMMP) provides financial assistance for the implementation of non-digester manure management practices that will achieve reduced greenhouse gas emissions in California.

Click this link for more information about CDFA’s Climate Smart Agriculture Programs.

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Secretary Ross in South Africa – Farewell to a land of resilience and opportunity

Secretary Ross with Western Cape Department of Agriculture director Ms. Joyene Isaacs.

By CDFA Secretary Karen Ross

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA – Our week in South Africa concluded by attending the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy’s Agricultural Outlook Conference. I had the honor of speaking to farmers and the academic community about California’s Climate Smart Agriculture practices.

The conference opened with a great speech by the director of the Western Cape Department of Agriculture, Ms. Joyene Isaacs, who not only thanked the agriculture sector for their resilience during the drought and uncertain times ahead (land reform and economy), but also thanked them for providing food for South Africans – a primary need that is sometimes overlooked in policy and social discussions within the country.

South Africa’s agriculture sector is definitely contending with the challenges of climate change, with a backdrop of land, economic and social issues that run deep. Solutions will not be easy, but the country and its people are committed to embracing opportunities in order to secure a brighter future.

The Berg River Dam Reservoir in the Western Cape.

Our trip has highlighted some on-farm strategies that specialty crop growers are undertaking to conserve water, partnerships of NGOs and academia to transform livelihoods of individuals through farming, and engagement by government to lead, support and inform on climate change. In fact, climate smart agriculture here is referred to as ‘SmartAgri.’

We have much to learn together – I’m optimistic about agriculture and our ability to work together to nourish people and protect the environment for future generations.

The California delegation at the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy.

 I would to thank our delegation – Abby Taylor-Silva (Grower-Shipper Association), Casey Creamer (CA Citrus Mutual), Carlos Suarez (USDA/NRCS), Don Cameron (Terranova Ranch), Karla Nemeth (CA DWR), and Randy Record (Record Family Wines) for being with us to learn and collaborate on SmartAgri strategies for the benefit of California agriculture.

Western Cape citrus packing.
Learning more about water supply challenges at the Hosloot River.
Western Cape’s Hex Valley has about 4,500 hectares of table grape and citrus production.
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Secretary Ross in South Africa – Awe-inspiring women moving forward to adapt to climate change

Secretary Ross with Ms. Rirhandzu Marivate of the Living Soils Community Learning Farm

By CDFA Secretary Karen Ross

WESTERN CAPE, SOUTH AFRICA – When I was in Bonn, Germany a couple months ago attending the United Nations Climate Conference, there was a lot of discussion concerning Sustainable Development Goals – the UN’s blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all by addressing the global challenges we face, including climate change. While in the Western Cape, I was very impressed to witness several of these goals in action and being spearheaded by awe-inspiring women.

Among them is Ms. Rirhandzu Marivate of the Sustainability Institute. She serves as project manager of the organization’s Living Soils Community Learning Farm. The Institute provides technical assistance and other elements of sustainable development to small-scale farmers and offers educational services to the children of farm workers. In addition to a school, the Institute’s campus includes a learning garden, an ecological housing project that encourages ethnic integration, and a natural woodland area to conserve native landscapes. Ms. Marivate works to share sustainability strategies, approaches for capacity building, and research within farm worker communities, all geared towards reaching the sustainable goals of reduced poverty, quality education, gender equality, and sustainable communities.

Ms. Marviate’s work and vision helps to further the achievements of the Learning Farm, which is an innovative partnership with the retailer Woolworths and Spier Winery.

I had the opportunity to meet three amazing women at the farm who are learning specialty crop production, marketing and business. This project is truly dedicated to transforming lives and providing upward mobility for women through farming – with a lens on the climate challenges that farming will encounter.

My visit to the Learning Farm was truly a realization about the promise of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and their great potential for disadvantaged women in the Western Cape.

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Secretary Ross in South Africa – Drought strategies in the Western Cape

By CDFA Secretary Karen Ross

THE WESTERN CAPE, SOUTH AFRICA – We were fortunate to be able to visit one of the largest plum farms on the African continent – getting a first-hand look at strategies to further conserve water and extend crop yield.

The stone fruit industry here is dedicated to export markets – with quality, yield and storage suitability being key attributes.

At Sandriver Fruit Farm, part of the Le Roux Group, the farming operation experienced complete surface water loss for almost six weeks during the summer of 2018, because the river that runs adjacent to the farm and through the local production region ran dry. Groundwater was not an option for these farmers and as a result, many strategies and approaches are now being used to extend water-use efficiency.

It is very encouraging to see similarities between farmers in California and the Western Cape in combating climate change!

By using netting on plum orchards, Sandriver Fruit Farm can experience water savings of more than 10 percent over traditional production.
Traditional wind breaks, consisting of trees, were replaced with netting to save water. The original windbreak tree trunks are used as posts.
Composting and mulching is becoming the norm in the Western Cape to maintain soil moisture.
In the Western Cape, 100 percent of stone fruit orchards utilize water-efficient irrigation – micro-sprinker (95 percent) and drip (five percent).
At Kanonklop, a winery in Stellenbosch, we observed cover-cropping under vines to conserve water and maintain soil moisture.
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#CDFACentennial – Centennial Reflections video series with Dave Ikari

100 years CDFA logo

The California Department of Food and Agriculture is celebrating its 100th anniversary as a state agency in 2019. Throughout the year this blog will feature a number of items to commemorate this milestone. Today we continue with the Centennial Reflections video series, featuring CDFA employees remembering their histories, and the agency’s.

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Secretary Ross in South Africa – Water resilience in Cape Town

Water levels and a conservation reminder in Cape Town.

By CDFA Secretary Karen Ross

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA – At the height of the drought (April 2018) in this amazing city, residents were restricted to 50 liters (13 gallons) of water per person, per day, and that allowed Cape Town and the Western Cape province to avert an unprecedented catastrophe, Day Zero, the day this city of four-million residents could have run out of water.

The threat made conservation the new normal, resulting in practices like hotel showers with minute timers, closed water taps in public places, and informational slogans/campaigns throughout the city.

As we became familiar with all that on our first day here, we also had an opportunity to meet with U.S. Consul General Virginia Blaser and her team at the U.S. Consulate in Cape Town. We learned that the Western Cape–smaller than the state of Texas–is the fifth largest agricultural producer in all of Africa, and the eighth largest wine producer in the world. 

Agriculture is the primary industrial sector in the Western Cape, and the recent drought left its mark with an estimated impact of more than 20,000 jobs lost in agriculture.

We also met with the Western Cape Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning for a first-hand briefing about the challenges of Day Zero, the climate variability that the Western Cape is experiencing (floods, fires, higher temperatures), and the impact on agricultural producers. It reminded me completely of our own drought episode and the challenges we encountered in California.

In wrapping up our day, we visited the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), a similar organization to USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. Here the partnership between specialty crop growers and academia is the same as in California – focusing research on crop resilience, soil health and optimization of soil-water management.  The potential for research collaboration is strong and I look forward to making connections with our academic institutions in California.

Secretary Ross (center-left) alongside US consul general Virginia Blaser at the US Consulate in South Africa. Others pictured, left to right, are CDFA science adviser Dr. Amrith Gunasekara, USDA-NRCS state conservationist Carlos Suarez, California State Board of Food and Agriculture president and Fresno County farmer Don Cameron, Metropolitan Water District board member and winegrape grower Randy Record, Calif. Dept. of Water Resources director Karla Nemeth, Grower-Shipper Assn of So. Calif. vice-president Abby Taylor-Silva, California Citrus Mutual CEO Casey Creamer, and State Board of Food and Ag executive director Josh Eddy.

The visit so far is inspiring – California and the Western Cape have many similarities from agriculture (wine & citrus), to weather and water management. There are many policy parallels that can be drawn. I am definitely looking forward to our visits tomorrow, which will include meetings with agricultural organizations, discussions with farmers, and tours of fruit orchards.

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Climate Change: Farmers don’t need to read the science, they’re living it – Opinion piece in the New York Times


Dead almond trees in Coalinga in 2015. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters via the New York Times

By Allen Sano, Fresno County Farmer

Many farmers probably haven’t read the new report from the United Nations warning of threats to the global food supply from climate change and land misuse. But we don’t need to read the science — we’re living it.

Here in the San Joaquin Valley, one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions, there’s not much debate anymore that the climate is changing. The drought of recent years made it hard to ignore; we had limited surface water for irrigation, and the groundwater was so depleted that land sank right under our feet.

Temperatures in nearby Fresno rose to 100 degrees or above on 15 days last month, which was the hottest month worldwide on record, following the hottest June ever. (The previous July, temperatures reached at least 100 degrees on 26 consecutive days, surpassing the record of 22 days in 2005.) The heat is hard to ignore when you and your crew are trying to fix a broken tractor or harvest tomatoes under a blazing sun. As the world heats up, so do our soils, making it harder to get thirsty plants the water they need.

The valley’s characteristic winter tule fog is also disappearing, and winters are getting warmer. Yields of many stone fruits and nuts that feed the country are declining because the trees require cool winters and those fogs trap cool air in the valley. Warm winters also threaten the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which provides 30 percent of California’s water. We had a good wet winter this year, but a few years ago the snowpack was at its lowest level in 500 years. We also worry that last year’s record California wildfires, which blanketed the valley with smoke for weeks, might become the new normal. I don’t get sick much, but that summer I had a hard time breathing because of the congestion in my lungs.

The latest report from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reinforces our anxiety. It warns of declines in food yields, instability in food supplies, increased soil erosion and threats to water availability in coming decades. The global food supply system is a big contributor of the greenhouse gases that are warming the planet, the report added. As The Times reported on Thursday (August 8), without “action on a sweeping scale” the warming climate will intensify “the world’s droughts, flooding, heat waves, wildfires and other weather patterns” and speed up “the rate of soil loss and land degradation.”

The good news is that farmers can be part of the solution. At our 4,000-acre farm, where we primarily grow tomatoes, we started planting winter crops that require less water, like garbanzo beans and garlic. When necessary, we leave some fields unplanted for part of the year to save water for our high-value almond and pistachio trees. We switched to drip irrigation long ago, which efficiently delivers water to crops at their roots under the soil, protected from the hot sun.

We try to take great care of our soil’s health and we keep learning how to do it better. A living soil with lots of organic matter absorbs and holds more water and nutrients, retains more topsoil and grows healthier plants that survive increasing pressures from pests and diseases.

After harvesting our fall crops, we now use cover crops that return carbon and nitrogen to the soil and nourish the microbes and fungi essential for a living soil ecology. The plants and soil organisms work together to pull carbon out of the atmosphere and draw it down into the root zone. We minimize disturbance of our land by decreasing tillage, which protects these microorganisms and keeps carbon in the soil, where it belongs. Rather than being a source of carbon emissions, farms could store carbon where it’s needed to grow food.

This has been good for our business, too. We spend less on water, energy and fertilizer and are getting good yields. 

We and other farmers here are constantly experimenting with new approaches to keep soils healthy. We’re part of a work group at the University of California, Davis, Cooperative Extension, where we learn about the science and share successes and failures with other farmers. Research and education like this are essential for farmers who are too busy growing food to keep up with the latest science and technologies.

The science is clear that the challenges facing agriculture will only become more difficult, and in unpredictable ways. Farmers will need more financial incentives to adopt practices that encourage healthy soils and water conservation, like government grants or cost-sharing arrangements. That kind of support would lower the barriers of cost and risk that farmers now face in trying new, climate-friendly ways of farming. With state-of-the-art science, innovation and sound public policy, farmers here and elsewhere in the United States can work to make sure this latest dire warning about the warming planet does not become self-fulfilling.

Link to article in the New York Times

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