America has dramatically shifted how it sources produce over the last several decades.
Think back to your childhood—to when you were still arguing with mom and dad over whether you really had to eat all your peas—and try to picture the fruit and vegetables on your plate. Do your memories differ from what you see in grocery stores today? If so, it’s not a trick of your mind: According to the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service, America’s produce industry has shifted from being domestically driven to one dominated by imports.
Between 1975 and 2016, the percentage of imported fruit and vegetables increased by double digits, reports the New York Times. Fifty-three percent of fruit was imported in 2016, up 27 percent from 1975. Meanwhile, vegetables went from 5.8 percent imported to 31.1 percent over the course of 40 years. The U.S. imports more produce because of improved infrastructure, adapted growing practices, lowered foreign labor costs, and upticks in Americans’ incomes, the newspaper says.
Policy changes at the Department of Agriculture, which has issued some 100 rules over crop sourcing during the last several decades, have opened the gate to approving more imported produce as well. Fruits and vegetables from places such as China, Brazil, and New Zealand were previously barred from sale in the U.S. because of invasive pests and diseases. Now, these areas can export to the U.S. with the help of orchard inspections, sprays, and bagging.
Unfortunately, the downside to an increase in imported produce is that fruits and vegetables can be less plump, juicy, and flavorful. That’s because imported produce is often selected based on their durability and their resistance to pests, so that they can make the long journey to the U.S., and the New York Times notes these practices can degrade both flavor and texture.
But there is an upside to the switch from domestic to imported goods, according to experts. Because imports often cost less than domestic products, shoppers can enjoy lower prices on imported produce. What’s more, consumers are able to buy items that aren’t seasonally available in the U.S., such as berries, grapes, stone fruit, mangoes, avocados, asparagus, limes, and squash. And while some produce does lose its nutritional value with time, there appears to be no evidence that imports have a significantly lower overall nutrient content.
Ultimately, nutritionists feel that having wider availability and consumption are a benefit to public health. And you probably appreciate all those extra avocados.