BioCycle November 2005, Vol. 46, No. 11, p. 54
With its heavy emphasis on controlled atmosphere storage, the Washington state apple industry provides a great model for preventing food waste.
Timothy W. Jones
WHEN IT COMES to the amount of food waste that winds up in the trash pile, the Washington state apple industry contrasts significantly with other fresh fruit and vegetable farming. The apple orchards dotting the foothills of the Cascade Mountains represent an industry with a refreshing presentation of progress and innovation. For apple growers, their culture includes respect for the land, desire to feed fellow humans, a reverence for the life cycle, and the desire to make a decent living in a spectacular locale. Our research at the University of Arizona on the American food system shows a gargantuan loss costing the American economy at least $100 billion annually.
Losses in the Washington/Oregon apple industry appear high at about 12 percent. But apples are grown and harvested only four or five months of the year and stored the rest. For decades, the apple industry’s goal has been to become a stable, sustainable and profitable business rather than chase short-term market fluctuations that characterize much of today’s farming. One of the first goals was to develop storage techniques that could provide fresh apples to the market throughout the year. This was accomplished with development of controlled atmosphere storage (referred to as “CA” in the industry). Apples that will last the longest are stored in rooms where the temperature, oxygen, carbon dioxide and humidity are controlled.
Controlled atmosphere storage began in the 1960s and the industry, enthusiastic about developing a stable apple supply, poured money in CA research and construction. Today, the Washington apple industry has more storage CA capacity than any growing industry in the world.
With a consistent year-round supply, the industry was able to achieve increasingly consistent prices that enticed consumers toward greater but more predictable consumption. With more predictable consumption, growers, packers and warehouses could better regulate their businesses, increasing efficiencies. Growers work together to maximize orchard and harvest use and yields. They cooperatively control the number of acres under cultivation based on demand, remove diseased and old trees and finance development of higher-yielding and more marketable varieties. They also cull apples that fail fresh standards to produce other products: applesauce, apple juice and sliced apples for canning and dehydration.
Consumers can nearly always find fresh apples in stores at about the same price anytime of the year. Apple products are some of the least expensive fruits found on the store shelf. Barring a cataclysmic natural disaster, the industry could go on forever. It is the hallmark of developing a sustainable farming industry.
These developments could not have been accomplished without cooperation. Many associations have developed over the last 60 years to increase communications, cooperation, harvest timing and all forms of money and effort pooling including marketing promotion, packing and warehousing. Don’t get me wrong. There is still stiff competition in the industry, but when they see possibilities that will benefit everyone in the industry, they usually grab the opportunity.
The contrasts between the apple and fresh vegetable industries are evidence of the value of instilling an understanding of food and its place in the life cycle and the value of working together as a community. Efficiencies and profits improve. Sustainability increases.
It is true that apples are more successfully stored and less susceptible to damage than other more delicate vegetables. But it was the desire and the willingness within the industry to pool knowledge and efforts that allowed the Washington apple industry to develop a more sustainable farming system.
Why doesn’t the vegetable industry begin to move in the direction of the apple industry? The basic reason is that their cultural values prevent them from seeing the possibility that vegetable farming can be more sustainable and profitable. Cultural values can only be changed through constant promotion. Currently no entity exists to coordinate or promote those values. What is needed is a food center to direct this education and promotion. Only then will actual progress be made.
Dr. Timothy Jones is at the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, University of Arizona in Tucson.