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ERS explores produce waste

USDA estimates consumer food waste at about $161.6 billion annually, or about $500 per person per year.

Although this aspect of the issue has been widely studied, less research has been done on waste on the farm and in the distribution chain.

This month, USDA’s Economic Research Service issued a report that casts some light on waste in the produce industry, which, it says, accounts for a third of total food waste by weight.

The report says consumers account for 42 percent of produce waste; retail distribution, for 18 percent; processing and packaging, 3 percent; postharvest, 6 percent; and agricultural production, 30 percent.

The study enumerated several causes of food waste in the production and distribution sectors:

Price volatility. When prices are low, some growers “may not advance produce through the supply chain,” the report points out. On the other hand, strong prices may lead growers to harvest more product of poorer quality, which is more likely to be thrown away further down the chain.

Labor cost and availability. Labor, especially harvest labor, accounts for much of the cost of growing produce. Rising labor costs—and lack of availability—may lead growers to abandon crops without harvesting.

Supply-chain factors. Infrastructure for produce commodities (such as vacuum-cooling refrigerated facilities) is costly. Often it is not feasible, particularly for an individual grower, to incur these costs for lower-quality product.

Contracts. Contracts, especially those with quality specifications, can reduce price volatility for the grower, but might exclude other growers who are seeking a market for excess product.

Policy. Public policy can offer incentives for reducing food waste (for example, tax incentives for donating food), but certain policy measures can increase it. These include restrictions on gleaning—“collecting and redistributing unsold or unharvested food”—and marketing orders that regulate quality and supply.

Proposed solutions include increased gleaning; processing unused items into juice, fruit leather, and condiments; and marketing imperfect or “ugly” produce.

Richard Smoley, editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published eleven books.