Section A: Fruits and Vegetables in the Food System
- Projected Outcomes
- Background / Lessons
- Career Pathway content standards
- Students will think about the role of horticulture crops in their lives.
- Students will know how fruits and vegetables fit into Iowa and Wisconsin’s agriculture and their food systems.
- Students will begin to understand how horticulture crops fit into the world food system and global economy
What role do fruits and vegetables play in our diets?
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
“Five a day for better health.”
Folk wisdom and modern nutritional research agree: eating lots of fruit and vegetables is good for your health. However, many Americans eat fewer vegetables and fruits than recommended, particularly fewer dark green and orange vegetables.
Where do these crops grow and how do they get to us?
Unlike animal products and grains, most fruits and vegetables do not require much processing before people can eat them. On the other hand, insects, bacteria, and fungi find fruits and vegetables just as delicious and easy to eat as we do. As a result, vegetables and fruits usually need careful storage and handling to prevent spoilage. Before the widespread availability of refrigeration and fast transportation, most fruits and vegetables people ate were grown locally. They were eaten fresh in season and canned, pickled, or dried in winter and early spring. Today most fruits and vegetables in the US travel a long way and undergo a considerable amount of handling and processing before they get eaten.
Only 0.03% of Iowa’s cropland is in commercial vegetable production, meaning the production of vegetable crops for profit. Less than 3% of Wisconsin’s cropland is in vegetables. In Wisconsin, the amount of land in vegetable production has declined by more than 25% over the past 40 years, from 337,959 acres in 1974 to 251,692 acres in 2017. Both Wisconsin and Iowa have also lost vegetable processing facilities during that time. As a result, most of the fresh and processed fruits and vegetables consumed in Iowa and Wisconsin are imported, either from other states or from other countries.
Land in fresh market vegetable production, 2017 Agricultural Census
|*Acres of corn are acres of corn for silage + acres of corn for grain|
Value of vegetable and fruit production, 2017 Agricultural Census
|Total value of vegetables||$20,253,000||$542,954,000||$8,167,752,000|
|State ranking in veg. production||
|Total value of fruit||$10,869,000||$177,446,000||$19,708,739,000|
|State ranking in fruit production||
Data from: 2017 Agricultural Census
In the U.S., California alone accounts for about 60% of fresh market vegetable production, both in terms of quantity and value. Five states (California, Washington, Florida, Arizona, and Oregon) produce almost 80% of fresh market vegetables produced in the U.S. We also import fruits and vegetables from all over the world.
From USDA Vegetables Annual Summary p. 7-8, accessed February 2022
With modern refrigeration and transportation, most fruit now eaten in Iowa and Wisconsin is imported from a few states and from other countries. See “How far do your fruit and vegetables travel.” States such as California and Florida have climates that allow them to grow tropical fruits such as oranges and to harvest temperate fruits such as strawberries over a greatly extended season.
However, climate alone does not account for the low level of fruit production in Wisconsin and Iowa. Take the example of apples. Michigan and New York, with growing conditions similar to Wisconsin and Iowa, have strong apple production sectors. And Iowa was once a national leader in growing apples. In 1911 Iowa produced 9.5 million bushels of apples, but by 1997 apple production in Iowa had dropped to 307,000 bushels, less than 5% of its peak production. See Comparing Apples to Apples, published by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Following World War II, the trend in US agriculture was towards regional specialization in a few key crops. Iowa focused on corn, soybean, and hog production, and Wisconsin emphasized dairy and vegetables for processing. Meanwhile, the infrastructure for processing and distributing other crops, including fruits, declined.
Muscatine Melon: A Case Study of a Place-based Food in Iowa by Sue Futrell and Craig Chase provides another example of the decline of horticultural production in Iowa.
Like vegetables and fruits, cut flowers and other ornamental plants were once produced near the markets where customers bought and enjoyed them. With today’s transportation and storage technologies, production has shifted to areas with better year-round growing conditions and lower labor costs. Florida and California alone accounted for 48% of wholesale floral sales of homegrown flowers in the US in 2019. Meanwhile, 70% of the wholesale value of fresh (or cut) flowers sold in the US were imported, mainly from Colombia (62%), Ecuador (23%), and the Netherlands (7%). In 1970, less than 1% of the carnations sold in the US were imported from Colombia; by 2016 roughly 62% of the carnations bought in this country were imported from Colombia. Colombia has seen a dramatic increase in cut flower sales to the United States, rising from just 1% in 1970 to over 60% by 2016. To stay in business, many American growers have shifted to producing pot plants, bedding plants, and potted foliage plants.
Statistics taken from NASS Floriculture Crops, 2019 Summary and AGOA Strategy and Marketing Plan, 2016.
What are the consequences of the way we get fruits and vegetables?
Our global food system is great for consumers in many ways. Take a trip to the grocery store in January. The temperature outside may be freezing, but the produce aisle is overflowing with bounty, from apples and bananas through broccoli, lettuce, and oranges to strawberries, tomatoes, and zucchini. Each item may have traveled thousands of miles, but they look fresh and unblemished, and they cost very little.
But the global food system is not perfect. Take a trip to the same grocery store in August. The offerings in the produce department are eerily similar to those in January. Most of the produce still comes from hundreds or thousands of miles away, with a world of waxing, packaging, and trucking to get it to the refrigerated coolers under the carefully calibrated lights.
If your town is lucky enough to have a good local farmers’ market, stop by there early in the day and compare what you find. No oranges or bananas, but a cornucopia of tomatoes, from clusters of deep red tiny cherry tomatoes to yellow pear-shaped, green striped, scarlet beefsteaks, and pale pink Brandywines weighing a pound or more each. Each of these varieties has a distinct flavor and texture unmatched by the well-traveled grocery store tomato.
Modern technology is great at preserving and transporting produce, but it has its limits. It can only work with varieties that are durable, and many varieties with excellent flavor and nutrition are rejected because they store and ship poorly. Also, some items such as bananas and tomatoes must be picked and packed green, before flavor and nutritional quality reach their peak.
Imported fruits and vegetables are supposed to meet US standards for pesticide residues, but non-food items such as flowers are not inspected for residues. Conditions for farm workers in other countries tend to be even worse than in the US, with long hours, exposure to harmful chemicals, poor pay, and minimal or non-existent benefits.
Sustainable farmers and their customers are rediscovering the importance of local markets and food systems that can provide profits to growers, and freshness, variety, and quality, as well as social and environmental benefits, to consumers.
However, sustainable food systems still face some major challenges, including the need to develop better techniques and technologies for handling and storage of fruits and vegetables, and appropriate infrastructures for local and sustainable foods.
The case studies in Section B provide some examples of the successes and challenges of sustainable horticulture.
Career Pathway content standards
|Projected Outcome||National Agricultural Education Standards
Performance Element or
(in this section)
|1. Describe the role of crops in their lives.||FPP.01 Examine components of the food industry and historical development of food products and processing.
FPP.01.01 Evaluate the significance and implications of changes and trends in the food products and processing industry.
|2. Explain the contribution fruits and vegetables make to their diet.||FPP.03 Apply principles of science to the food products and processing industry.
CS.02 Develop a skill set to enhance the positive evolution of the whole person.
CS.02.01 Address personal health by understanding, respecting and managing your body’s needs.
|3. Compare and contrast how consumption compares to dietary recommendations.||FPP.03 Apply principles of science to the food products and processing industry.
FPP.03.01 Apply principles of science to food processing to provide a safe, wholesome and nutritious food supply.
CS.02.01 Address personal health by understanding, respecting and managing your body’s needs.
|4. Explore how fruits and vegetables move through the food system.||FPP.01 Examine components of the food industry and historical development of food products and processing.
FPP.01.02 Work effectively with industry organizations, groups and regulatory agencies affecting the food products and processing industry.
|5. Identify fruits and vegetables that can be grown locally.||PS.02 Prepare and implement a plant management plan that addresses the influence of environmental factors, nutrients and soil on plant growth.
PS.02.01 Determine the influence of environmental factors on plant growth.
|6. Describe the amount of produce imported from other states and countries.||—||A-2|
|7. Describe the steps in the food system between the farm and their plates.||PS.03.02 Develop and implement a plant management plan for crop production.
PS.03.04 Apply principles and practies of sustainable agriculture to plant production.
|8. Identify and map the global nature of the food system.||CS.05.03 Research geographical data related to AFNR systems.||A-3 (also in Mod I)|