Globally, food loss and waste prevention efforts at farm and production level are, in many respects, still in their infancy. Many growers around the world are not required to record or report on their post-harvest crop losses — the dearth of data in this area makes it hard to determine exactly how much food never makes it beyond the farm gate.
In 2016, a ReFED report estimated that in the US, some 10.1 million tons of food remains unharvested at farms — representing almost one-fifth of the annual total food waste generated in the country. In Europe, as much as one-third of all food waste occurs during primary production, but classifying what qualifies as waste when dealing with unprocessed crops and livestock is difficult, as this Scottish study authored by PhD student Ciara Beausanga points out.
Part of the problem is that producers tend to consider any food waste and losses to be an intrinsic part of farming, and so don’t necessarily document such data. “It’s not an issue of primary concern for them,” Beausanga says.
During her research, Beausanga found that the farmers she spoke to viewed any losses or waste more in terms of the root causes — such as pests and diseases, weather, storage, harvest, cosmetic specifications and supply/demand balances. As such, getting data estimates of waste volumes during a typical growing season proved tricky.
“Farmers did not identify food waste as a priority issue on its own,” she said. “Frequently, the way food waste is used relates to the management of pests and diseases on farms.”
The study notes, for instance, that while yields and productivity are a concern for farmers, they tend to view these issues in terms of quality or economic losses. As such, the term ‘food waste’ doesn’t resonate as something that needs to be urgently addressed.
According to Beausanga, any approach to tackling food waste on farms needs to be phrased and framed in a context that is relevant to the growers themselves — and that may mean taking a more holistic view.
“As farmers view waste in the context of the whole farm business, I think a ‘whole farm approach’ is the best way to address food waste,” she says.
Getting farmers to focus their efforts at the top of the food waste hierarchy — such as prevention and charitable redistribution of crops fit for human consumption — could be an uphill battle, however. Many farms already have options for dealing with any losses they incur — crops can be composted onsite, ploughed back into the soil, used for animal feed or sent for anaerobic digestion.
The Gleaning Network is one organization that has had some success in working with farmers across Europe and the UK to salvage surplus crops, redistributing them to people in need.
“I think where charities can come directly to the farmer to take their surplus produce, they will happily oblige,” Beausanga says.
However, Dean Pearce, business development director at Specialist Waste Recycling, points out that with this type of initiative, the farmer’s gain is more a moral, rather than a financial, one: “This type of solution is only viable in isolated instances, rather than a regular basis,” he maintains.
He added that if farmers were to explore more commercial outlets, such as supplying food firms that make soups and ready meals, they might come up against security-of-supply issues, given manufacturing requirements for guaranteed quantities over a fixed period of time.
“Surplus crops by their nature do not meet those criteria,” he said. “Efficient manufacturers operating at a scale capable of handling the larger quantities of surplus simply cannot work with this level of uncertainty.”
There are also logistical barriers; surplus crops need to be taken from farms and utilized in a relatively short space of time — especially if they contain high liquid content — unless they can be stored effectively, but few farms have adequate facilities for this.
While Beausanga’s research states that investing in processing and freezing facilities could be a valuable way to further reduce food waste along the food supply chain, it makes the point that any net reductions in food waste and losses would need to outweigh the potential increase in energy consumption from freezing facilities.
The challenges are complex, but better data gathering would be a good starting point.
“The biggest barrier to addressing the issues is simply that we do not know where or how much of it is produced,” Pearce said. “Once we do … we have a much better chance of success.”
In the UK, work is already underway to address this. The Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) is starting to map food waste that occurs within primary production with the aim to tackle the root causes of this waste. It is also facilitating various projects to improve forecasting and maximize crop utilization under the Courtauld Commitment 2025.
Data modeling is one approach that WRAP hopes to exploit to provide better and more efficient measurement of crop losses and waste, compared to traditional measurement techniques, such as large-scale in-field assessment.