Standing on the side of the road, in around 30°C heat (86°F), selling pineapples, was an inspiring tropical fruit orchardist. His story was simple – he produced exceptional fruit and wanted to share it with his customers, he was tired of selling to the large companies that shipped his superior product out of state and, in return, supplied his state with inferior, imported products. As the fruit companies’ model conflicted with his ethics, he decided to act independently, even though the work was harder, and the returns were probably less. So, every day he drove around 129 km (80 miles) to set up a stall, stood in the heat, offering the best of what the season offered to anyone sensible enough to stop.
In another land, a similar orchardist had a similar philosophy. Swapping pineapples and mangoes for cherries and peaches, he chose to sell his produce independently offering premium fruit to those who stopped by or lived locally. The alternative model for him was shipping his products about 6 hours by road to a sorting facility, those same products would then be packaged and shipped back to the town where they had originated from. An ‘efficient’ model that disengaged the consumer from the producer.
Centralised food systems make sense… until they don’t
In both anecdotes (one from Hawaii the other from New Zealand), the growers are offering an alternative to that of fresh fruit being shipped to a centralised facility where it is sorted and then distributed. These are by no means isolated cases – across most countries, road side stalls and sellers connect consumers with local products. Nevertheless, centralisation is a necessary model to ensure that fruit is available everywhere we want it, but is it sensible? There are several facets to this story but let’s focus on why we need centralised distribution and what the cost is. Let’s start with the cost.
Ripe equals sweet
Fruit production is more than planting trees and waiting for them to drop fruit – it is a year-long commitment that is designed around what type of fruit and what type of production philosophy the grower has. Does the production method support the export, organic, or low spray markets, for example? And, importantly for this post, is it for the local market and what is the possible time delay between picking the fruit and a customer enjoying it? The reason for this is that as fruit ripens, the sugars develop – generally, the riper the fruit the sweeter it is; however, ripe (sweet) fruit does not travel well and there is a short window of time between when ripe fruit is picked and when the juice needs to be cascading over the consumer’s chin. Producers, wanting to sell fruit to a marketing company or to the on-seller cannot afford for that fruit to be damaged, bruised or over-ripe when it reaches the consumer, and for this reason they are compelled to pick the fruit before premium ripeness (and, therefore sugar and flavours) are achieved.
Fruit sugar is measured in brix (or, more accurately Degrees Brix) which is the amount of sugar in an aqueous solution; specifically, one degree Brix is 1 gram of sucrose in 100 grams of solution. In effect, Brix is just one measurement of how ready a fruit is and does not necessarily define something as delicious nor desirable. As a measure though, it does provide the grower with one parameter for export or wholesale distribution of fruit.
The cost to the consumer for a system that is designed to pick fruit before it is optimal for eating but is optimal for transportation, sorting, packaging, and more transportation, is a fresh fruit experience that is not as good as it could be. But, does that matter? Ultimately, consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables is a healthy thing to do, if it is an enjoyable thing to do then that makes being healthy just a little bit easier. The counter-point is – if you want to enjoy bananas and you don’t live in Latin America then you are going to have to eat fruit that has been picked too early for local consumption.
No one wants to eat a green banana
According to Dan Koeppel in his book “Banana – the Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World” there was no fruit industry pre-banana. More specifically, prior to the industrialisation of banana production by what are now mega-fruit companies, there was no fruit industry. The desire to get bananas to US cities meant the invention of technologies to support shifting bananas from dense jungles in places such as Guatemala. Distribution chain technologies were developed that included radio networks, built-in refrigeration in cargo vessels, controlled atmospheres and the use of methods to delay ripening (and later the use of ethylene gas to ripen fruit prior to sale. There is no doubt that banana ripeness is a thing of personal preference and, as consumers, how long we leave them in the fruit bowl does help determine that; although why someone would leave them till they are black-brown is beyond the comprehension of this author.
Centralised management and distribution
Assuming then, that we don’t live in a utopia where apples, mangoes, cherries, bananas and pineapples can all grow in the same garden and assuming that, as consumers we want to eat them, then a system is required to shift them from grower to shopper. Over the years, the systems that have developed have become centralised – in some countries or for some products, mega-companies control most of the in-market supply of products (and often the availability and price); for other countries or products, multiple companies aggregate products, package and ship them. The logistics of managing fruit inventory, packaging it, storing it and widely distributing it, requires considerable resources – usually beyond the means and expertise of those who grow the fruit; giving rise to a necessity of modern food – centralised systems that are efficient and effective.
Efficient food distribution has a valid place in modern food systems as it has the potential to reduce food waste and increase access for populations that might not be able to get oranges in winter or cherries for New Year. But, it also drives a uniformity of what fruit should look like, how ripe (or unripe) it should be when picked or harvested, and it can contribute significantly to food miles when unnecessary transportation occurs (such as shipping it out of a region to be sorted and packed only to be shipped back to the same region for sale – yes, that does happen).
A mixture of both local and centralised
There is a way that you can have your reduced-footprint-fruit-and-eat-it-too. That is, local food and a centralised distribution system really describes the farmers or producers’ markets and are a place where consumers are brought together at the point of aggregation of products. It is also an opportunity for feedback between producer and consumer to occur (and often that discussion centres on ripeness and how long a product will last).
In a lot of ways there is no one ultimate system – if we are interested in addressed global food insecurity, then food needs to be moved from areas where production can occur to areas where there is need. Similarly, if we are interested in supporting local and artisan producers, then commerce needs to occur as close to the producer as possible. Finally, though, if we are interested in a year-round supply of bananas in wealthy non-equatorial regions then we need to understand that our fruity preferences do have a cost.