Foodservice Footprint farm-waste Comment: Time to tackle the farm waste scandal Comment Out of Home News Analysis

Comment: Time to tackle the farm waste scandal

A new tool promises to help producers measure and report the huge volume of food waste generated on farms. It’s high time the issue is addressed, says Nick Hughes.

What gets measured gets done – or so the saying goes. It’s little wonder therefore that the vast volume of food wasted on farms each year gets precious little attention compared with that wasted by businesses and households.

Farm level loss doesn’t currently count towards national food waste reporting, in part because it’s notoriously difficult to measure. WWF had a stab at doing the maths in a 2021 report in which it estimated that a staggering 1.2 billion tonnes, around 15% of all food produced, is wasted globally on farms each year.

A subsequent UK-specific report from 2022, produced as part of WWF’s partnership with Tesco, found that 25% of food waste in the UK is likely to occur on farms, more than retail, manufacturing and hospitality and foodservice put together. Yet there was not a single mention of farm-level food waste when the UK Government consulted on plans to make reporting of food waste mandatory for large businesses in 2022.

WWF hopes a new means of measuring waste generated on farm will help push the issue up the agenda. In April, it announced the launch of a new global farm loss tool for growers of all sizes to more easily measure and report on farm-level food loss. The tool has been tested with business members of the Consumer Goods Forum’s food waste coalition (members include Tesco and Nestlé) and their growers; it is designed to help farmers and their buyers identify and address the cause of on-farm food loss and its associated impacts — such as scope 3 emissions.

The tool can be used to estimate how much surplus crop was left behind in fields post-harvest and how much was wasted at further stages across a farm’s operations, such as during processing and packing.

Waste drivers

Although data on farm-level food loss has historically been lacking, the reasons why food is wasted before leaving the farm-gate are well documented. These range from a lack of affordable labour for harvesting crops to produce being rejected for not meeting strict buyer specifications.

Even harvested crops are not guaranteed to make it beyond the farm gate with post-harvest risks including spoilage to food during storage or last minute order cancellations by buyers. A survey of farmers in September by organic veg box company, Riverford, found that 30% reported having an order cancelled without explanation, leading to loss of income and food waste.

In that same survey, 49% of British fruit and vegetable farmers said it was likely they would go out of business in the next 12 months, with many blaming supermarkets and their buyers (late payment was another common complaint).

Since then, the outlook for UK farmers has worsened with persistent rainfall during the winter and spring leading farming groups to warn of low yields and soaring prices for foods ranging from potatoes to milk. Confidence levels were at record lows at the end of last year and after the wet weather are now likely even worse, the NFU said earlier this month.

In this context, food left to rot on farms is not just an ethical scandal, it risks exacerbating an already perilous financial predicament for producers.

Renewed effort

The ability to measure levels of waste more accurately won’t of itself alleviate such pressures, but it should at the very least lead to a renewed effort to tackle some of the drivers of farm-level waste once the scandalous numbers involved enter the public (and political) consciousness.

Buyers, including manufacturers, retailers and foodservice and hospitality businesses, need to step up and support producers to help temper the scale of the crisis that’s unfolding on farms. Supporting organisations like Waste Knot, which creates a market for farmers to supply misshapen and surplus vegetables to wholesalers and caterers, is a good starting point, especially for businesses lacking the scale to influence wider supply chain change.

Policy makers have a similarly key role to play. In its 2022 report, WWF urged the government to require medium and large farms to report on their food waste alongside post-farm gate businesses as part of a series of recommendations. Others included the integration of food waste measurement and reporting into sustainable agriculture financial incentives, and the adoption of policies to drive improved supply chain practices such as the prohibition of actions – like short-notice cancellations – that are shown to drive on-farm food waste.

In the UK, an area half the size of Wales is used to produce food that never makes it off the farm. We should all reflect on that kind of statistic whenever the subject of food waste arises – and resolve to do something about it.