In our last blog post of the month, we will finally discuss the most nuanced and complicated form of food waste. This waste occurs before a fruit or vegetable even has a chance to be processed, transported, sold, or brought into a home. Today we’ll learn about the waste that occurs on farms.
Many people clump farm waste under the vague umbrella term of “imperfect produce”. However, as we discussed in our last blog, “imperfect” is not a comprehensive term. The term itself paints an imperfect picture when used to describe the full landscape of food waste. This is especially true on farms, where the fate of a fruit depends on a complex system of supply and demand aligning in just the right way.
Even after spending over 2 years untangling the problem of food waste, I am only now beginning to understand how all these complex factors affect which fruits are eaten and which are wasted. There is one fact, however, that I am very confident in: Once we find the key to eliminating waste on farms, we will have found the key to achieving Zero Waste by 2050.
According to the EPA, reducing surplus produce on farms is the most preferred tactic to reduce total food waste.
A Complex Ecosystem of Waste
Food waste on farms goes beyond simply sorting through perfect produce to keep and imperfect produce to discard. This process of culling does still take place on farms, where workers are trained to selectively harvest perfect crops and leave the rest on the plant. Fortunately, the outcome of this process outcome is not a total waste, since the imperfect produce is usually plowed back into the soil and used as fertilizer for the next year’s crops.
The real problem lies in the myriad of additional factors that can lead to waste, including unpredictable weather, fluctuating market prices, labor shortages, and pests. Many of these variables are more fit in the realm of economics than agriculture.
An ideal supply-demand curve can be projected when both quantities are predictable. Market fluctuations can cause reality to vary wildly from predictions.
It is difficult to anticipate exactly what the supply-demand curve will look like next spring when planting crops in the fall. If market prices drop or demand is lower than anticipated, it may cost more for a farmer to hire workers to harvest a field than to simply let the crops rot and accept the loss. To offset this uncertainty and prepare for unanticipated weather patterns and pests, farmers have begun to plant extra produce in the fall to make up for crops that die during the winter. However, this too can lead to a surplus situation with no buyers in sight, which in turn leads to an even more dramatic version of the cycle outlined above.
It is not difficult to see extreme examples of these challenges present today. As climate change drives shifting weather patterns, farmers are already having to shift their tried-and-true methods to adapt to unprecedented heat waves and winter storms.
The Unprecedented Waste of 2020
Even more evident than the effects of climate change was the unprecedented agricultural disaster brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Overnight, nearly every restaurant across the country shuttered its doors, effectively eliminating an entire revenue stream for American farmers. Farmers had to make a decision: harvest with no confirmed buyer or plow over their fields in hopes of a better 2021. This reality of this situation was made even more dystopian in the context of a worldwide economic recession, where record numbers of people were facing unemployment and struggling to put food on the table.
Some farmers tried to make the best of the situation by donating their surplus food to food pantries. However, as the New York Times described at the time, these well-meaning suppliers were faced with a new set of obstacles:
"Many farmers say they have donated part of the surplus to food banks and Meals on Wheels programs, which have been overwhelmed with demand. But there is only so much perishable food that charities with limited numbers of refrigerators and volunteers can absorb."
Food pantries thrive on non-perishables. When there is a glut of fresh produce, there is only so much that can be done by even the largest non-profits before the ever-looming expiration date arrives.
Zero Waste By 2050
Currently, most of our waste reduction efforts at The 2050 Company are focused on the post-farm supply chain.
Since The 2050 Smoothie extends shelf life while maintaining all nutrients and flavor, it is the perfect vehicle for reducing waste in homes and stores. It blends improved nutrition, convenience, and waste reduction in a way that perfectly matches the vision Lisa Jahns outlined in this month’s first blog.
The 2050 Smoothie is also well suited to reduce waste in post-production. Most of the rescued produce in our smoothies currently comes from processing plants where harvested produce is sorted, frozen, and packaged. In this way, we directly recover waste from the exact processes currently used to make traditional frozen smoothie alternatives!
We have yet to tackle the complex waste that occurs on farms. Instead, we have been focusing first on the more manageable sources of waste in homes, stores, and processing plants. Simultaneously, we have built a comprehensive plan to ultimately cut away at the complex waste happening on farms. The 2050 Company is named after a year that is decades off in the future. It was built around a far-reaching vision of achieving ambitious goals, including Zero Waste by 2050. Evident in this mindset is the importance of planning for wide reaching future impact while simultaneously focusing on the day-to-day of launching a brand new company.
Through our discussion with farmers, we have learned that what they really need is a combination of reliability and flexibility from suppliers. The two factors provide the foundation for the full 2050 vision. We want to approach farmers before harvest season arrives and offer a guaranteed purchase of their surplus produce at a fair price. In effect, we would say “If you go through the effort of hiring workers and harvesting your fields, and still can’t find a buyer in the conventional market, we’ll be that buyer.”
Since our drying technology is so effective at lengthening shelf-life, we’ll be able to purchase this produce during seasons of surplus, then save it to incorporate into our smoothies during periods of scarcity. More importantly, this will allow us to quickly adapt to unprecedented events like COVID-19, when speed, flexibility, and supply of non-perishable foods become vital to maintaining food supplies around the country and the world.
According to the United Nations, food supply must double by 2050 to feed a growing population living on a warmer planet. And yet, more than 50% of all produce grown in the United States today is wasted.
Before we set our minds to using twice as much land, water, and resources to produce even more food, doesn’t it make sense to first address the waste in our current system? If a boat is sinking, it makes sense to patch the hole in its hull before frantically bailing out buckets of water!
As the planet warms, the problems plaguing farmers today will only grow more severe. Extreme weather will be more common, markets will be more volatile, and people around the world will be more hungry. Our vision of Zero Waste by 2050 is intrinsically tied to a vision of Zero Hunger by 2050. In the next 3 decades, it will become necessary to not only eliminate waste in our supply chain, but also reinvent food as we know it.
The food of the future is long-lasting, transportable, and sustainable. We believe there are few greater causes available to entrepreneurs today than to create food of and for the future.