The vegetable technology gap

In the great quest to get Americans eating healthier, spinach is an unusual success story. We’re consuming four times as much fresh spinach as we were four decades ago, as a vegetable once derided as choke-it-down “good for you” has become a mainstay of home cooking and upscale restaurants. But the spinach boom wasn’t driven by changing tastes, or the cartoon exhortations of Popeye. It was driven by technology.

Spinach, like many vegetables, is finicky. If you packaged it in the same airtight bags used for potato chips, the leaves would start to break down before they made it from California’s Central Valley to a supermarket in Chicago. 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.

As the country seeks solutions to the obesity epidemic, there’s been plenty of debate about how to get people to eat better. Do we need to improve access to healthy foods? Teach cooking? Tax sugary drinks? But there’s one thing that’s often left out of the conversation: technology.

It might seem strange to think about vegetables as a technology, but they are. The average supermarket produce aisle represents decades, if not centuries, of agricultural research and development. But in the United States, big-league commodity crops like corn and soy, as well as meat, gobble up most of the agricultural research investment from both the public and private sectors. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s dietary guidelines tell us to fill half our plate with fruits and vegetables to maintain a healthy diet, but its research priorities are far different. So-called “specialty crops”—the government’s name for the category that includes, essentially, all fruits, vegetables and nuts—received just 15 percent of the federal research budget over much of the past three decades.

“There’s nothing more important we can do to improve the health of this country than to invest billions and billions into researching the fruits and vegetables that we’re encouraging people to eat,” said Sam Kass, the former White House chef and food policy guru under the Obama administration who now works with food tech startups.

Agricultural research is fundamental to improving how we raise, grow, harvest, process and ship everything that we eat. It took millions of dollars of public and private research and years of experimenting with limp leafy greens before breathable salad packaging came onto the scene. Consumers no longer have to wash sand and dirt off their greens, remove tough stems and ribs or chop them into bite-sized portions. The same types of technologies have also helped bring us baby carrot packs with dips, sliced apples in McDonald’s Happy Meals and ready-to-eat kale salad kits.

MyPlate, the government’s nutrition guide, and a plate representation of crop subsidies.

“Vegetables are called specialty crops! Don’t ask me to explain why,” Pingree said as she unveiled her graphic at TedxManhattan back in 2014. The room full of foodies gasped and mumbled disapprovingly.

The idea that junk food is cheaper than produce because of farm subsidies is so often repeated by food movement leaders like Michael Pollan that almost everyone assumes that it’s true. But the reality is more nuanced.

Subsidies on their own don’t explain why processed foods are cheaper than produce, calorie for calorie. Fruits and vegetables, first and foremost, are highly perishable, which makes everything about growing, harvesting, storing and shipping them infinitely more complicated and expensive. Many of these crops also take a ton of labor to maintain and harvest. Economists who’ve crunched the numbers have found that removing agricultural subsidies would have little effect on consumers’ food prices, in part because the cost of commodities like corn and soybeans represent just a tiny share of the cost of the food sold in the grocery store.

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, when Bruce Church started his lettuce farm. Iceberg lettuce yields, on the other hand, have only doubled in that time. The USDA didn’t start tracking such data for most of the darker leafy greens until the 1990s.

Even if subsidies did make fruits and vegetables dramatically cheaper, it’s far from clear that everyone would start eating their broccoli. The price of produce isn’t the only cost to eating fruits and vegetables; many consumers also lack the time or the skills to prepare and cook their perishables. And increasing fruit and vegetable consumption is hard to keep up as Americans eat more of their food on the go, away from home and prepare far fewer traditional meals on their own.

Moreover, the produce industry doesn’t want to be subsidized like Big Corn or Big Soy. When industry leaders come to Capitol Hill, they have been clear that they didn’t want traditional subsidies, like price supports, said Glenda Humiston, vice president of agriculture and natural resources at the University of California. “They want help with the infrastructure to do their jobs better,” she says, including more funding for research labs and data collection that can help industry solve problems on the ground.

Reducing the need for labor is one of the top priorities for the industry, especially with the Trump administration’s rhetoric and recent crackdown on undocumented workers. Labor alone can account for half a farm’s costs and labor shortages are already preventing the expansion of acreage of specialty crops in many regions. Farmers can be hesitant to invest in growing, watering and raising a crop if there’s uncertainty about having enough workers to harvest it.

“Growers and shippers are going to have to find ways to mechanize, or we’re not going to be able to harvest our products, and we’re talking about delicate products,” said Steve Church, CEO of Church Brothers Farms, a major grower in Salinas.

“The biggest issue we have here is labor,” Church added. “No question in my mind.”

Today, the government is funding research at Washington State University and other universities to design robots that can gently harvest apples and even see or smell when the fruit is ripe—a potential leap for the kind of mechanization that has so far eluded much of the produce industry.

USDA researchers are also working on a system that drastically cuts down on the need to sort fruit. The prototype is an elaborate, six-armed machine that goes into the field with apple pickers. The apples are fed onto a conveyer belt that uses an infrared system to detect blemishes and even grade the fruit on the spot.

Other research is focusing on improving flavor. In Florida, researchers have cracked the code to make tomatoes taste better, an innovation that could help reverse decades of breeding tomatoes for durability and thick skin that has left the fruit tasteless and watery. The tomatoes, which also have more lycopene, an important nutrient and anti oxidant, have begun being marketed in Florida under the name Tasti-Lee. The company that commercialized the technology says nearly 94 million pounds of the tastier tomato have been sold so far.

“We first of all had to have a stable supply. We had to figure out how to get tomatoes from the West Coast to the East Coast,” says a USDA scientist, permitted to speak on background. “But now we can focus on the whole flavor component.”

Making tomatoes tastier is only the beginning. “Understanding this pathway, it’s not unique to just tomatoes, but you can use this as a model for citrus, or peppers or apples or anything else,” the scientist said.

THOUGH SPECIALTY CROPS have lagged behind their shelf-stable brethren for much of the past century, the needs of the produce industry haven’t gone totally unheard in the halls of Washington. The idea that these smaller crops might deserve more attention began to gain some traction in the early 2000s, when California growers became increasingly angry that their state was the No. 1 agriculture state based on value, largely due to high-dollar specialty crops, but they were coming up around 16th in terms of USDA research funding coming into the state.

In 2006, there was also a renewed interest in investing in research after a deadly E. coli outbreak linked to packaged spinach rocked the entire produce industry—and consumer confidence. Three people died, and 276 people were hospitalized. The disaster fueled an intense food-safety push across Salinas Valley and the rest of the produce industry. It also helped energize a diverse coalition of growers that had started to organize to ask Washington for a greater share of spending in the farm bill, the law that every five years sets the agenda for the Agriculture Department. They demanded that more money be invested in food safety and other types of research. Producers of commodities like dairy and grains were less than pleased to have another group vying for a part of the federal pie, according to congressional aides.

“It was a hell of a fight,” said Humiston.

But Big Produce’s political push has paid off. In 2008, the farm bill for the first time included a section dedicated to specialty crops. There’s now a $72 million fund to promote various specialty crop projects, like building hoop houses to extend the growing season. Fruit and vegetable farmers are also starting to get access to the same government-subsidized insurance policies that other commodities have enjoyed for years. But the biggest growth for specialty crops in recent years has been in research spending.

The USDA now dedicates some $400 million to studying specialty crops each year—a big increase, though still a modest fraction of the nearly $3 billion the government invests in agricultural research each year. That pot of money is spread among USDA’s in-house research, land grant universities and other public research institutions. The USDA couldn’t provide specialty crop research estimates from before 2008.

The Obama administration and its intense focus on healthy eating was also a boon to the specialty crop sector. The administration not only backed allocating more money to the crops, but it also promoted more fruits and vegetables in school meal programs that serve 30 million children each day, and in the Women, Infants and Children program, which provides nutritional support for half of all babies born in the United States.

While much of the new federal boost for produce investment is motivated more by the industry’s business needs than any push to combat the nation’s crippling obesity epidemic, public health advocates with little political clout are thrilled to see the needle moving, however it happens.

“If what we want is for people to eat fruits and vegetables, we have to make it easier, we have to make it taste better,” said Marion Nestle, a food studies professor at New York University and author of the popular blog Food Politics.

“It’s about time produce got some attention.”