When you walk into a grocery store, you are not seeing a representative sample of that year’s harvest. You are choosing from a subset of the produce that made it to grocery stores—which is a subset of what made it out of farmers’ fields, which is a subset of the seeds planted that spring, which is a tiny, tiny, subset of all the seeds that could have been planted and weren’t. The food we eat is very tightly regulated.
Obviously no one wants to open a box of salad greens to find a rotting disaster, or bite into a piece of fruit that’s infested with maggots. Regulating our food system from a safety standpoint is obviously important. But our definition of “safe to consume” doesn’t exactly line up with what is actually safe to consume. Why do we regulate the amount of dirt that can be on a leaf of spinach, when we’ve also decided it’s perfectly legal to consume antibiotics every time we eat red meat? And then there’s the host of cosmetic regulations that fall somewhere between unnecessary and outright ridiculous. For example, a scar “aggregating more than 16 millimeters in diameter” on a tomato 64 millimeters in diameter is considered “serious damage” by the USDA. So is “open space in one or more locules” that “seriously detracts from appearance of tomato cut through center at right angles to a line from stem to blossom end”—which is a fancy way of saying that that the USDA regulates how much of the goopy open part of a tomato (where the seeds are) you can have in proportion to the fleshy, more structured part. This has no impact on the nutritional value of the tomato, yet remains the standard.
There actually exist government-issued “visual aids” for determining whether produce meets cosmetic standards—including a guide, that shows the remarkably minimal difference between carrots whose shape meets U.S. Grade No. 1 requirements and carrots that don’t make the cut. It should be noted that grade requirements are not equivalent to grocery requirements. Grocery stores don’t have to sell only No. 1 produce; they just have to label it. (Grocery stores can also institute regulations beyond what the USDA measures).
Carrots are roots; when they hit rocks beneath the soil they can split and bend. Weird shapes are the norm. They can be red, yellow, white, green, and were originally purple. Discoloration is natural. When we think of the “shape” or “color” of a carrot, we’re thinking of the most uniformly shaped within a tiny handful of the hundreds of varieties of carrots that exist—and this is the case across the board. Uniformity in food sales has altered how Americans conceive of what produce is “supposed” to look like, which, in turn, further encourages grocery stores to stock only perfect-looking fruits and vegetables. Perfect produce has no small cost: about a third of all food produced in the U.S is wasted.
It also has demanded uniformity in food production, with dramatic loss in biodiversity as a result. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that, since the 1900s, 75 percent of plant genetic biodiversity has been lost “as farmers worldwide have left their multiple local varieties and landraces for genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties.” There are hundres of thousands of known edible plant species, but only a few hundred are used by humans. More than 90 percent of crop varieties are no longer farmed. Three quarters of the world’s food comes from 12 plants and five animal species. Just three plants—corn, rice, and wheat—constitute 60 percent of the calories consumed by humans from plants.
This is not due to the grocery industry alone. Cosmetic standards are compounded by supply-side incentives toward uniform production. With advances in genetic science, both in genetic modification and traditional breeding techniques, have come crops engineered to maximize yield. Farmers who choose to grow high-yielding varieties can expect more revenue, and because most of a farm’s costs occur at the beginning of each season (seeds, planting labor, irrigation systems, fertilizer, and the like), this increased security is hard to turn down. Meanwhile, large-scale and subsidized production in the developed world means production in the developing world has to keep pace or be outcompeted; as a result, indigenous plant varieties are replaced by mass-produced ones. The FAO concludes the primary cause of lost biodiversity is “the replacement of local varieties by improved or exotic varieties and species.”
Should we really care? Biodiversity increases the resiliency of global food supply; wacky vegetables often offer distinct nutritional benefits. They’re also beautiful—I consider a uniform tomato a tragedy. But beyond the science and the art, losses in biodiversity parallel losses in human diversity: the marginalization of indigenous cultures parallels the destruction of indigenous crops and farming methods. The trend toward uniformity mirrors the push toward conformity that dominates much of the world.
When I read the USDA’s tomato grading standards, I see families struggling with obesity because they don’t have the time or the money to cook fresh meals. I see the U.S. government forcing Native American children into schools of assimilation. I see children who no longer receive subsidized school lunches and go home hungry. I see Haitian rice farmers starving in the 90s because they could not compete with U.S. subsidies. That is why we should mourn the tomato and the loss of biodiversity within our agricultural system.