( Photo by The Packer staff )

Growers can’t afford to be saints on principle alone.

In particular, fruit and vegetable producers must profit from any farm-level scheme to cut food waste.

A recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service came to that conclusion. 

“If reducing food loss takes away resources devoted to farm profitability ... it is unlikely that any grower would choose to participate,” said the authors of “Economic Drivers of Food Loss at the Farm and Pre-Retail Sectors: A Look at the Produce Supply Chain in the United States.”

The report noted food loss can result from commodity price volatility, labor, consumer preferences, supply chain factors and more.

Since USDA estimates for fruits and vegetables in the North American supply chain reveal 30% of all fresh produce waste occurs at the farm level, there is food to be saved if growers have the profit incentive. 

Given that fact, I asked members of the LinkedIn Fresh Produce Discussion Group this question: “What is one thing produce growers could do that would reduce food waste/loss while improving their profitability at the same time?”

The question received more than 30 responses. Here are a few ideas from the group:

  • Use Apeel Sciences coating;
  • Promote ugly produce;
  • Every grower should have a buyer that buys “No. 2” produce;
  • Better matching supply with demand:
  • Grow and pack the best-eating varieties of produce and take out less favored older varieties;
  • Plan better; and 
  • Cut out unnecessary costs.

While the market can certainly promote consumer acceptance of “ugly produce,” that trend has not fully taken hold. Are growers finding enough profit in marketing No. 2 quality fresh produce? Certainly having a range of buyers to handle the full manifest is good advice.

Post-harvest treatments like Apeel are intriguing, and potentially speak to preserving the usability and the profitability of fresh produce as it leaves the packinghouse door.

Perhaps the best way to avoid waste is not to produce it all.

John Pandol, director of special projects for Delano, Calif.-based Pandol Bros., commented about matching supply and demand quantities.

“Understanding that crop yields are variable, it is not realistic to demand the public eat 50% more watermelon this week just because they are there,” he said.

Planning better, growing only desired varieties, avoid wasting inputs on packing low grade produce that can never return dollars to the farm.

Solid advice from multiple industry members, and a good reminder that reducing food loss isn’t as easy as wanting it to happen.

Tom Karst is The Packer’s editor. E-mail him at [email protected].

Related content:
Industry wisdom on reducing food loss without losing profitability
Grower profitability a must when reducing food waste, study says
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