In the Central Valley, agriculture is everything. Farmers here grow 25% of the country’s food, yet copious amounts of flawed produce is dumped or left to rot.
For many supermarkets, an orange with a hail scratch is deemed unsellable. In 2019, researchers from Santa Clara University found that an estimated one-third of food in northern and central California is wasted, largely because of supermarket standards and consumer habits. We cannot follow this model of growing more produce than we need – or wasting this much – given California’s limited water resources, drought on surface water, and severe overpumping of groundwater.
American supermarkets believe consumers need perfect produce, and refuse to reduce their quality standards because they prefer profit over building a less wasteful food system. California agricultural commissioners need to keep the market accountable and reduce agricultural food waste before we exhaust all of our resources.
Agricultural waste is a relatively recent phenomenon. After farming was transformed by industrialized monocropping, the focus became growing as much produce as possible. But farmers have now surpassed the amount of produce that can be processed and sold to consumers. Instead of stopping agricultural growth, the industry is still expanding, forcing farmers to throw away unattractive produce because of the surplus of perfect produce.
In his book “American Wasteland,” author Jonathan Bloom points out that supermarkets have taken advantage of this growth by only buying increasingly perfect produce, with a focus on size, color and how shippable something is rather than its flavor and nutrition.
With climate change creating increasingly extreme droughts, it is important to use our resources wisely so we can produce enough food in the future. Even during severe dry periods in the Central Valley, we do not turn to enough sustainable water practices or reduce waste. Wasted produce uses the same amount of water as marketable produce, which means dumping imperfect produce wastes resources twice. Instead of slowing consumption until a wet year, farmers overpump our aquifers during dry ones.
Markets want larger produce which takes more water, exacerbating the water use problem, even with the oversight from existing water and agriculture agencies. With government intervention on the market’s standards, groundwater agencies will have an easier job of cutting down on water waste.
Farmers have to deal with the consequences of the market’s decisions, and overpumping groundwater to fulfill those demands means the farmer will not be able to count on it for the future. Forced over-fertilizing and the past use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides has left some soil unusable for future generations.
Growing unmarketable produce costs Central Valley farmers the same as growing perfect produce, but the distributor (market) does not pay for the former. This leaves farmers vulnerable to the whims of market trends. They need support to help markets become more sustainable.
This model is vastly untenable for the valley and world’s future, but government intervention can help unprotected farmers remedy this recent food waste phenomenon. By forcing the responsibility of waste on the markets, it is possible to root out the problem.
We need change and this is the time to act. If markets will not change, we must make them change.
More from Calmatters’ earth day op-ed contest
From brainy write-ups to passionate pleas for reform, here are selected excerpts from CalMatters’ Earth Day op-ed contest.
The inaugural contest is part of an organization-wide effort to diversify commentary voices across the state and build career pathways for young journalists.