Thrown out – food waste and the war on farming

There has been plenty of talk lately about who is wasting water. Farmers are the newest target for the wrath of the newly water conscience public. People complain about many things that farmers do. Too much water, too many pesticides, the list seems to just keep growing. It is always easier to point a finger at someone else and not look at your own contributions to a problem. I thought I would use this post to talk about one aspect that many probably don’t consider, the problem of food waste.

In an archived episode of Science Friday, one of the authors of “Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill” stated that “over half the land area in the U.S. is dedicated to food production, and over 80 percent of the water that we consume goes into growing and producing our food. So when we throw out, say, half a hamburger, according to an estimate by the Water Footprint Network, that’s equivalent to taking over an hour shower, in the water use that was required for that half hamburger you just tossed.” I wonder how much water the cities are wasting in this way, while they complain about how much water it takes to grow an almond.

Another aspect of food waste is the “ugly food” issue. On recent news story from my local NPR station KVPR, there was a story about “ugly food” which stated that “because of food beauty standards over 6 billion pounds of produce is wasted on farms every year.” No scar, blemishes, bumps, lumps, malformed produce allowed. Damage from hail, mechanical damage, fruit that just has the wrong shape, size or color can all be kick out of the box and into the cull bin.  Also, some insect damage can also cause cosmetic damage that would send an otherwise perfectly edible piece of fruit straight to the dumpster. A small bite on a small piece of fruit can turn into a large ugly scar as the fruit sizes. A small bite on a piece of fruit just before harvest can send it straight to the dumpster.

People complain about pesticide use but I have to do many sprays that are only done so that produce can make the grade as far as looks go. Insects called Thrip can scar nectarines when they are small, just after bloom and even just before harvest when their feeding on the surface of the fruit can cause the fruit not to color properly. Thrip will also scar developing citrus just after bloom as well. For this reason, these crops are sprayed just after bloom to keep these scars from forming. Katydids, a type of grasshopper, can also cause scars and small bite damage on fruit. These are larger insects and can take harsher insecticides to kill them, all in the name of the perfect piece of fruit. Worms in apples and pears will also cause a small bite mark on the surface of fruit. Less toxic materials can’t be used because these insecticides need to be ingested by the worm to work and it is that first bite that causes the damage. The worm doesn’t even have to get into the fruit to cause damage enough to send the fruit to the trash.

Damage on outside of orange only.

Damage on outside of orange only.

Early thrip feeding at bloom causes a scar that expands as fruit grows.

Early thrip feeding at bloom causes a scar that expands as fruit grows.

Worm will take a bite on the outside of the fruit. Cut it away and you have a nice apple.

Worm will take a bite on the outside of the fruit. Cut it away and you have a nice apple.

Katydids will take a bite out of a nectarine.

Katydids will take a bite out of a nectarine.

Katydids can damage small fruit causing a scar that will get larger as fruit grows.

Katydids can damage small fruit causing a scar that will get larger as fruit grows.

When thinking about agricultural practices, it is best to remember that this is a business. A business that wastes expensive resources doesn’t stay in business long. All businesses that want to remain profitable are constantly refining their practices and farmers are doing this all the time. If farmers could sell ALL the produce they send to the packing house and save money on sprays that really don’t protect anything, it would certainly be a better use of resources, and would save me some time as well.

Note: I have not fact checked the stories mentioned above as I consider them credible sources. There are links to other sources of information in those stories if you are interested in reading further on this topic.

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