Why Are Most Fruits and Vegetables Still Classified as "Specialty Crops"?

Ask a Scientist - September 2011

A. Sullivan-Greiner of San Diego, CA asks: “Given all we know about the importance of fruits and vegetables in the diet, and the government’s emphasis on the "Five a Day" campaign, why are most fruits and vegetables still classified as "specialty crops"?  Aren’t Congress and the USDA sending a mixed message here??” He is answered by Karen Perry Stillerman, senior analyst in the UCS Food and Environment Program.

You are right that the designation of most fruits and vegetables as “specialty crops” seems directly at odds with years of federal government dietary guidelines. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) new “MyPlate” recommendations, for example, urge Americans to make fruits and vegetables a bigger part of every meal. By simultaneously branding some of the healthiest foods as “specialty” items, the department provides a perverse disincentive not just for consumers to buy healthy, fresh produce but also for U.S. farmers to grow it in the first place.

Of course, farming and food production decisions in the United States are dominated by agribusiness concerns. The designation specialty crop is intended to distinguish these crops from commodity crops—non-perishable crops such as corn and soybeans, that are most often grown as livestock feed and as ingredients in highly processed foods rather than as foods people eat directly. Commodity crops are often grown on huge tracts of land and bought and sold by agribusiness giants such as Monsanto and Cargill. These crops receive the lion’s share of farm subsidies from the U.S. government. The 2008 Farm Bill took a step toward leveling the playing field by mandating at least some relatively small amounts of funding for research and state government projects to enhance the competitiveness of fruit and vegetable farmers. But most of even that assistance benefits industrial-scale produce growers and sellers.

In the end, while your suggestion to change the terminology is a good one, it is probably more important that the government step up efforts to promote the production of fruits and vegetables by farmers of all sizes and to make them more affordable to consumers in a variety of ways. As we note in our new UCS report, Market Forces: Creating Jobs Through Public Investment in Local and Regional Food Systems, farmers markets typically focus on local sales of fresh produce, and have expanded to become an increasingly important part of our food system. The number of farmers markets in the United States speaks for itself—increasing, with very little taxpayer support, from just 340 in 1970 to more than 7,000 today.

UCS believes that ramping up investment in local food systems—including a robust network of farmers markets—will yield multiple benefits for Americans—in environmental quality, greater access to healthful food, and local economic development. That’s why we are working to ensure that our nation’s agriculture policy provides significant new incentives for the farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, and local communities involved in the production and local distribution of “real food.”

That’s also why UCS is calling for the next farm bill to:

  • Provide greater support for and expand the production, availability, and affordability of sustainable, organic, and healthful food;
  • Expand the development of local and regional food systems, including farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) arrangements;
  • Improve competition in the marketplace by eliminating unfair and inequitable agriculture subsidies;
  • Provide much needed support for and remove barriers to entry for beginning and disadvantaged farmers and ranchers to strengthen the future of sustainable agriculture; and
  • Ensure that farmers engaged in sustainable and diversified practices have access to a “safety net” of credit and risk management tools to support their businesses.


Karen Perry Stillerman works with UCS senior scientists to generate new analyses of agriculture's contributions to global warming and to communicate the links between farming practices, productive soil, and the public's health and well-being. Ms. Stillerman holds a master's degree in public affairs and environmental policy from Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs. She is an active member and a program planner for the Environment Section of the American Public Health Association.

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