The impacts and opportunities associated with modern agriculture have the power to transform the planet. Conventional farming contributes to climate change by releasing carbon from soils and desertifying large swaths of land at a rapid pace. At the same time, regenerative farming has been identified as a means of mitigating climate change and even creating a net drawdown of carbon from the atmosphere. Organic farming exists in a middle ground between conventional and regenerative agriculture, where it produces limited environmental benefits. California Giant sources from both conventional and organic farms to provide strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries to consumers in the U.S. and Canada. The company has integrated a few environmentally-conscious practices, such as crop rotation, minimal pesticide use, and drip irrigation, to reduce its impact. Reliance on conventional agriculture significantly weakens the company’s efforts to become sustainable, but consumers have the power to encourage companies like California Giant to enforce a baseline standard of organic practices across its suppliers. I recommend California Giant organic blueberries over any conventionally grown blueberries, but buying local and from regenerative farms is always best.
California Giant organic blueberries have a high content of antioxidants, fiber, and vitamin C. The berries may have traces of pesticides on their skin because the USDA organic farming standards allow for the use of a select list of chemicals. Consumption of pesticide residues on a serving of fruit will not harm human health, but your chances of eating pesticides are greatly reduced if you opt for organic produce instead of conventional produce.
California Giant packages its berries in plastic clamshell containers made from 80% recycled plastic. The company states that it is working on creating a circular system in which it will recycle clamshells to make new ones, but until this system is established, the company sources most of its recycled plastic from water bottles. The company also shares that it has been looking into alternatives to plastic for its packaging. I appreciate that California Giant is making the effort to improve upon its practices because these efforts reflect that the company values sustainability. While California Giant continues to look for better alternatives, it hopes to divert its packaging from landfills by featuring a How2Recycle label on its containers to encourage consumers to recycle the plastic. Another responsible inclusion on the labels is a 16-digit number that consumers can search on the company’s website to track where their berries came from. This small instance of transparency humanizes the people behind the product and provides an easy way for consumers to learn more about the farm where their berries were grown.
California Giant farms grow organic blueberries in adherence to USDA organic farming standards. The term ‘organic’ refers to a product made in a way that relies on natural processes to maintain soil and water quality, minimize the use of synthetic chemicals, and preserve local biodiversity. Soil management practices manifest themselves as crop rotation and the use of manure, both of which build up nutrients into the soil. California Giant’s organic farmers may only use pesticides as a last resort, so their primary pest management practices include hand weeding, pest vacuums, cover crops, and deer fences. Drip irrigation systems allow farmers to reduce their water consumption and save time. In order to conserve biodiversity, some farms within the company went beyond the USDA organic standards to become Bee Better certified. Bee Better Certified farms provide sources of pollen and nectar for pollinators, with at least 5% of their farmland dedicated to pollinator habitat. Designated habitat serves as a nest and feeding site on which farmers may not till or engage in any other activity to disrupt the habitat. Overall, organic farming reduces carbon emissions, water pollution, soil erosion, and health risks compared to conventional farming. California Giant has no higher standard of farming beyond the USDA organic standard for its organic farms; however, a company claiming to value sustainability should continuously strive to reduce its environmental impact. Regenerative agriculture represents the highest environmental standard for farming and even presents itself as a way to mitigate climate change. I hope to see California Giant include some regenerative practices as a standard across all of its farms because it is an important opportunity for the company to support the fight against climate change.
Once the blueberries are ripe, farmworkers pick them by hand, package them in clamshell containers, and pack the containers onto refrigerated trucks after they have been inspected for quality. The trucks deliver the berries to a cooling facility that lowers the fruits’ temperature to 32 degrees. Cooled berries are then distributed to stores across the U.S. and Canada. Transportation and cooling represent the greatest sources of emissions during the lifecycle of California Giant organic blueberries, yet the company has not published any goals or initiatives to reduce the impact of these processes. The company provides a brief statement claiming that its forward distribution system reduces food miles and that it has energy-saving cooling systems, but it must back these claims up with proof.
California Giant’s clamshell containers are less carbon-intensive than plain plastic packaging because 80% of the plastic is recycled. Manufacturing packaging from recycled plastics releases fewer emissions because any greenhouse gases released during extraction are eliminated. While the company looks into alternatives to plastics, it should focus on using entirely recycled plastics because it is quite close to achieving this goal.
California Giant produces strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries from a variety of farms across North and South America. The company started out as one family farm in 1970 to a partnership of farms, allowing California Giant to become a berry supplier across the U.S. and Canada. I am disappointed to see that the company has not published any standards or initiatives to ensure a safe and healthy work environment for its employees. Despite the lack of information about worker welfare, I did not find any human rights violations or lawsuits against California Giant. The company works with Primus Laboratories to conduct third-party audits of its food safety practices, and further mandates high safety standards by hiring food safety managers to monitor fields and facilities full-time. It seems to me like food safety is a greater priority than worker safety to California Giant.
Sustainability-wise, California Giant’s headquarters in Watsonville, California achieved the TRUE Zero Waste Certification for diverting over 90% of its waste from landfills and producing no more than 10% contaminated waste. This certification is a great achievement, but California Giant has plenty of other facilities that produce waste (likely more than the company’s HQ) as well. In addition to achieving the TRUE Zero Waste Certification for its HQ, California Giant lists that it engages in the following sustainable practices: recyclable packaging, organic farming, integrated pest management, drip irrigation systems, crop rotation, and energy-saving cooling systems. All of these sustainable practices have a limited positive impact and are not ambitious compared to other alternatives. Ultimately, the predominance of conventional agriculture among California Giant farms negates the environmental benefits of the company’s sustainable practices. Conventional farming releases carbon from soils, poses health risks to farmworkers, and degrades the land. California Giant shows some interest in being a sustainable company, but it can do better by enforcing a higher standard of farming across its farms.