California Farms Struggle to Harvest Produce in a Broken Food System

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

A study conducted by Santa Clara University’s Center for Food Innovation and Entrepreneurship, shows that 33.7% of produce on California farms goes unharvested. Researchers surveyed 123 mid-sized and larger conventional farms. In the article “Study Finds Farm-Level Food Waste is Much Worse Than We Thought,” Gosia Wozniacka of Civil Eats states that the new data reveals food waste at the farm level is much worse than previously thought.

Civil Eats found that many farmers would only estimate the amount of unharvested produce per year; when a thorough survey was conducted with accurate data, the numbers were higher than estimated, causing alarm across the agricultural community. With almost 40-million Americans categorized as food insecure, efforts to reduce the amount of unharvested food are crucial.

Although some might want to blame farmers, there are many variable factors that contribute to the problem. Food waste depends on oversupply, market price fluctuations, labor costs, crop resistance to weather conditions, and retail buyer specifications.

The Santa Clara study serves as a wake-up call to farmers and, more importantly, to consumers, to make produce available to growing populations and to reduce the environmental impacts of food waste. Unharvested produce contributes to climate change. Globally, food waste emits about eight percent of the total greenhouse gases emissions. Limiting the amount of food wasted across national and local food systems will help reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions.

One driver of food waste is wholesale and retail buyers strong preference for food that “looks” a certain way. Farmers are under contract and must abide by specifications that lead to “ugly” food, such as misshapen produce, being left behind and wasted. Donating food to local food banks has been a solution for some farmers who receive a tax-loss writeoff for these donations. Although donating food that does not meet buyers’ standards may seem like an economical tradeoff for farmers, the costs of labor and packaging often exceed the tax writeoff benefits. Recently, companies like Imperfect Produce and organizations like Farm to Pantry are working with some farms to harvest the produce that the farmers themselves cannot afford to bring to sale. This is a sustainable solution, but the system behind food safety and liability makes it challenging for growers to allow volunteers or a third party to come on to their farms to harvest crops.

As of September 5, 2019 there has been no corporate media coverage on the study conducted by Santa Clara University or the report done by Civil Eats.


Gregory A. Baker, “On-Farm Food Loss in Northern and Central California: Results of Field Survey Measurements,” Science Direct 149, October 2019,

Gosia Wozniacka, “Study Finds Farm Level Food Waste Is Much Worse than We Thought,” Civil Eats, August 20, 2019,

Student Researcher: Gurpuran Singh (City College of San Francisco)

Faculty Evaluator: Jennifer Levinson (City College of San Francisco)