A recently released report from British non-profit Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) has found £31 million worth of strawberries and lettuce were discarded on farms in 2015, mainly because they didn’t meet market requirements.
WRAP published the results as part of a push to improve supply chains and produce utilisation, and announced pioneering projects have also now begun in priority crops including soft fruit, root vegetables and salad.
Each project aims to address common issues that arise in production, piloting innovative models and interventions to overcome these difficulties and develop best-practice case studies.
The projects are the result of a roundtable meeting chaired by WRAP in 2016 that included the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), the British Retail Consortium (BRC), the Fresh Produce Consortium (FPC) and the National Farmers Union (NFU).
In the strawberry study, researchers found just over 9% of mature strawberry crops ended up as waste in 2015, equivalent to 10,000 metric tonnes (MT) of product across the whole sector and valued at £24 million.
“The main causes for this were linked to product not meeting quality requirements, primarily as a result of fruit being misshapen or suffering from pest or disease-related damage,” the charity said.
In lettuce around 19% of all the crop went unharvested in 2015, representing 38,000MT lost with an estimated value of £7 million.
“Although weather related impacts will always be challenging, more accurate forecasting by both growers and their customers was cited as the main action to prevent lettuce crops going to waste, together with changes to specifications for head sizes,” WRAP said.
In both sectors WRAP found considerable variation between producers – between 3% and 17% of production ended up as waste for strawberries, and 7% to 47% for lettuce.
NFU director of policy Andrew Clark said farmers and growers wanted to minimise waste as much as possible, and worked hard to tackle pests and disease by improving agronomy, harvesting and processing techniques.
“Food waste is in no one’s interest, least of all farmers. Improved forecasting, for example, would provide farmers and growers with an opportunity to plan ahead, secure land and pre-order seed,” Clark said.
“Retailer product specifications are important and beneficial to maintain produce quality, but these can also be problematic when they are not responsive to seasonal challenges.
“We welcomed a recent recommendation from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee that supermarkets should relax rules and look to ‘normalise’ foods that may have slightly different colours, shapes or sizes.”
BRC director of food and sustainability Andrew Opie said cutting food waste on farms was key to developing a sustainable supply chain, and as retailers knew this they were already working with farms to improve ordering and make the most of every crop.
“What we don’t know, however, is the total volume of waste to cut or the best way to do it which is why this report is so important and why it will set the agenda for practical changes which will make a real difference to farmers and the environment,” he said.
Courtauld Commitment 2025
WRAP head of sustainable food David Moon drew attention to the group’s Courtauld Commitment 2025, which aims to cut waste and greenhouse gas emissions associated with the food and drink sector by at least one fifth per person by 2025.
The organization estimates this could lead to cumulative savings of £20 billion (US$26.9 billion).
“Tackling food waste in primary production is a key area of Courtauld 2025 and it’s crucial that we have the facts to prioritise and direct action,” Moon said.
“We’re using our experience in mapping waste and bringing together key stakeholders to pinpoint where, why and how much waste arises on farm.”
He said this would help the UK food supply chain become more efficient and competitive, which would be crucial in the coming years.
“It is also critical that we have the support of retailers and producers collaborating on projects to develop and share best practice,” he said.
“It’s an exciting new area of work and we’re delighted to have the support of key sector groups.”
Industry actions underway
In its release, WRAP highlighted several initiatives that were moving in the right direction for cutting food waste, for example Asda’s sourcing arm IPL adding commercial intelligence with expertise from Agrimetrics and the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) to help its growers use a new yield forecasting tool.
Growers now use smart phones to upload photos of their crop throughout the season, and intelligent software uses these images to assess the crop’s potential in relation to data from local weather stations, and historical data.
Growers, IPL and Asda receive a yield report to make accurate decisions earlier in the season that reduce the risk of both gluts, and shortages, at farm and retail level.
At the end of the season growers can use the data to understand how to improve management of the crop in subsequent years to produce higher marketable yields.
“As Courtauld 2025 signatories, we are committed to developing evidence based insights to support the reduction of food waste across the Agri-food system,” said Agrimetrics head of partnerships Simon Davis.
“Our modelling approach to quantify food waste in primary production has provided greater visibility of the evidence of food waste at farm level and potential data gaps.”
WRAP also pointed to a pilot between fresh produce specialist MyFresh, Len Wright Salads and customers Pizza Hut and The Co-op working collaboratively to address waste in the supply chain, through improved communications around planning, forecasting and delivery.
The non-profit also applauded the range of ‘wonky vegetable’ initiatives introduced by retailers over the last 18 months, offering an opportunity to investigate those that have delivered the greatest impact on food waste while also bringing new business benefits.
In the strawberry research a common complaint was not being able to meet customer specifications, band while this can be better managed through improved growing systems, the investment costs can be a barrier.
In step the likes of Co-op, IPL and Asda, which are working together through a demonstration project that provides growers with data on investment costs and the returns they can make.
“This will help growers make better informed decisions about their businesses’ future, whilst reducing food waste,” WRAP said.