It seems like grocery shopping for fruit and vegetables has become more of a gamble than a skill. In fact, I don’t even feel as bad for myself after scratching a losing lottery ticket as I do after failing with fruit.
Biting into a plump looking tangerine that I dragged home from Whole Foods, only to find it dry and miserable, is far more disappointing than scratching a loosing lottery ticket. At least when I bought the ticket I was aware of the odds —buying produce shouldn’t be like the lottery!
When I say grocery shopping should be a skill, I’m not referring to hours of browsing through coupon leaflets in order to minimize the checkout price. In fact, competitive pricing has come at the cost of forgetting about taste, quality and sustainability.
Take tomatoes, for instance. They are the leading vegetable crop in the US, producing more than 14 tons annually. Of that, only 1.8 tons are used for the fresh market, meaning that the average American eats only about 11 pounds of fresh tomatoes every year. This is understandable, seeing that only on the rare occasion will a store bought tomato have that special oomph—the umami (that extra “something”) that can turn a bland salad tomato into a main feature of the dish itself.
You might have seen the word “heirloom” next to the nubby-looking vegetables at a farmers market. This isn’t just another buzzword like “artesian aquifer” or “home-made” that we seem to find on most labels today. Heirloom foods are actually heirlooms in that these fruits, vegetables and even livestock, have been selectively bred over hundreds of years to produce a specific quality or taste.
Are you among the lucky ones whom have had a chance to bite into a legendary Bradford Watermelon, to taste the tartness of a Ramapo Jersey tomato, to sauté a Yellow Danvers onion in butter, or to make a pie with the unrivaled sweetness from an Empress peach tree? If so, then you know these flavors can’t be compared to their contemporary store-bought counterparts.
In pre-industrial days—before fossil fuels made large scale agriculture possible—it was taste and quality that made a certain strain or breed attractive to the buyers. In the beginning of the 19th century, seed breeders were in a figurative arms race to create fruit and vegetables that would create high demand. One of the best examples of this is the famous case of the Bradford watermelon. Although there were several kinds of watermelons in the region (Georgia), Southern farmers valued the Bradford variety so much that they selectively poisoned decoys to deter poachers. Their clever plan backfired when entire families died after accidentally eating their own decoys. There are many other examples of farmers fervently protecting their trademark breeds, zealously guarding them from thieves and competitors.
Unfortunately, there are several problems with heirloom varieties that make them unsuitable for large-scale commercial farming. Superior taste often means thinner skin and fleshy insides that bruise and spoil during long transportation routes. Instead, commercial farmers favor varieties with tougher peels and drier flesh that won’t break and spoil while traveling across oceans and endless highways.
What’s more, while commercial strains are genetically altered to yield in “determinate” periods and only produce infertile seeds, Heirloom varieties are “indeterminate”, or sporadic, producers that yield fruit several times throughout their lifetime. They must also be monitored in order to not cross breed with other strains. While determinate strains are constantly remanufactured for commercial plantations, unique heirloom strains simply go extinct if not cared for. It’s sad to think of the endless fruits and vegetables that were lost to unwritten history as they gave way to commercial varieties. All this considered, heirloom seeds are a poor choice for commercial farms. They are more ideal for small-scale growth by local farmers who protect native food varieties and distribute seeds within the community.
Today, the produce that we find in usual supermarkets and corner stores is almost exclusively commercially grown and transported from afar. An economic system wherein anyone, regardless of location or season, can buy whatever fruit or vegetables they like for a reasonable price depends on methods like genetic modification, drip irrigation, plastic mulch, strain-targeted pesticides and large amounts of fossil fuels. These are necessary in order to supply the massive demand. Unfortunately, the amount of waste has grown disproportionally.
Solid waste disposal from American households have increased 140% since the mid 70s. Today, 40% of all food is thrown away uneaten. As we throw away the nutrients, we also waste the energy and water needed to grow, package, refrigerate and transport that food. For example, according to a 2009 study, more than a quarter of U.S. freshwater use goes into producing food that is discarded. Although our current economic system is convenient and pleasurable to our immediate and unending demands, it is simply not a sustainable model meant for future generations. Even with all the options for food and waste thereof, 805 million people globally are undernourished, and about 5% of Americans are undernourished. These are faults with our system that cannot be ignored if we are to live up to our calls for change.
So how do we take the first step towards improvement? Companies won’t willingly give up revenue streams from airfreighting exotic fruits and vegetables year-round. What’s more, they won’t need to as long as people in cold climates insist on eating raspberries in January. However, no company can overcome the factor of demand. If consumers rediscover the taste of heirloom (ideally at a reasonable price), demand will increase. Since these varieties are better produced on a smaller scale within a close proximity of where they will sell, we would have to become accustomed to localized production. Decentralization, much in the way that U.S. operates its’ very government, should work to increase efficiency and address needs of local populations. Just as we are critical of letting the government decide what we eat at school or in our homes, we should criticize the efforts of companies to make us forget what we once loved to eat.
As ever, allocating scarce resources like water and farmland is challenging—maybe impossible—to do in a way pleasing to all. Americans generally struggle with delaying gratification, though in this case the reward will literally be that much sweeter. It is easy to assume that having more variety and availability of foods will be a positive, however, with large-scale industrial processes one inevitably looses a great deal of delicious agricultural integrity. Increased efficiency has brought America and the world great affluence, but perhaps it is at the cost of long-term quality. Localization means rediscovering assets that our very own communities once held dear. Once we begin to explore the unique and utterly scrumptious fruits and vegetables that can be grown in our own regions, it won’t be hard to forget about dry and tasteless tangerines.