Fruit and vegetable research can't keep up with Big Ag because it's not a top priority for the government.
American dietary guidelines state that we should fill half our plates with fruits and vegetables. The other half should be occupied by protein and grains. Interestingly, however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which created the dietary guidelines, does not reflect those priorities in the allocation of research grants.
A fascinating article for Politico, titled “The Vegetable Technology Gap” by Helena Bottemiller Evich, points out that, between 2008 and 2012, a mere 0.5 percent of USDA subsidies went toward vegetable, fruit, and nut growers. A whopping 80 percent, by contrast, went to corn, soy, grain, and other oil crops, and the rest to livestock, dairy, cotton, and tobacco. Clearly this does not align with what the USDA is telling us we should eat.
“The U.S. has simply gotten much better at growing corn than lettuce. Today, we get about six times as much corn out of one acre of land as we did in the 1920s. Iceberg lettuce yields, on the other hand, have only doubled in that time.”
At the same time, the USDA persists in referring to vegetables and fruits as “specialty crops,” an odd choice of moniker, as there should be nothing “special” about foods that are supposed to comprise half our diet at all times. These are foods that we’re supposed to eat more of, and yet, as pointed out by Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture, the U.S. would be hard-pressed to meet demand if Americans actually started eating the recommended amounts.
There’s an interesting lesson to be taken from this – and that is the role technological research can play in building a healthier food system. By directing more funds toward produce research, there is tremendous potential to get Americans eating healthier food by making it more accessible. The Politico article uses the example of bagged salad greens, which are the result of millions of dollars spent by the government in the mid-20th century.
“It wasn’t until scientists came up with a special bag—one that controls how much oxygen and carbon dioxide can seep in and out—that pre-washed, ready-to-eat spinach became something that a shopper could grab in the produce section and dump straight into a salad bowl or smoothie. Spinach, and leafy greens in general, have become so convenient that Americans are actually eating more of them—an impressive feat considering just one in 10 Americans eats the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables each day.”
The solution isn’t a simple transfer of research dollars from the pockets of Big Ag to those of smaller-scale growers, since those two styles of agriculture have different needs and wants. The challenges faced by produce growers revolve more around labor, which often accounts for half of a farm’s expenses and has the problem of shortages, particularly with migrant workers and skilled tasks: “Farmers can be hesitant to invest in growing, watering, and raising a crop if there’s uncertainly about having enough workers to harvest it.” Access to water is another key issue.
Even if vegetable and fruit production skyrocketed, there’s the added question of whether Americans are ready for an influx of produce. With increasing numbers of people eating on the go, many home cooks aren’t interested in buying a head of broccoli or a bag of Brussels sprouts, even if they’re cheaper than ever.
One could argue, though, that our reliance on takeout and fast food is a direct result of the subsidies provided by the government. Because highly processed food has been so cheap and easy to get, we’ve lost many of the ‘kitchen craft’ skills that once would have ensured a healthier diet at home. We need to get back to that, for the sake of our health, and a bigger governmental push toward produce research, marketing, and packaging could potentially help that. It’s time for the USDA to put its money where its mouth is.