We’re talking waste – measuring, monitoring and moving forward

As WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme) releases its ground-breaking report setting out new insights into the scale of surplus and food waste on UK farms, Alexandra Lear, LEAF Projects Assistant, outlines the opportunities it offers to improve efficiencies and deliver more sustainable production throughout the supply chain. 

Food waste is by no means new - Government propaganda from the first and second world war will show us that.

Although we might not be on the frontline in the UK right now – we’re on the frontline of another kind of war…the war on waste!

Whilst it might not be as high on our agenda’s as it was during the first and second world wars, it might be a good idea to put it back at the top. The issue of waste has been increasing since Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall showed us and told us that on average, each household in the UK bins £700 worth of food a year. That’s no small number! 

The UK’s sustainability body WRAP has led the way with quantifying and reducing food waste across the supply chain for the last 10 years. According to their research, approximately one-third of all food produced in the world which is intended for human consumption is either lost or wasted. Research has shown that household food waste makes up around 70% of the UK post-farm-gate total, but that’s just part of the picture - what about pre-farm-gate? 

Researchers and organisations, such as Feedback, a campaign group working to regenerate nature by transforming our food system, have investigated these areas. A report published by Feedback last year surveyed farmers views on potential reasons for food waste on-farm. 

The report highlights the role that supermarkets play in overproduction and subsequent waste of food in UK farms, stating that produce rejected for cosmetic reasons, such as being the wrong shape, size or colour, was the biggest reason for food waste.

However, no real estimate on amounts of food wasted pre-farm-gate has been available... until now. WRAP’s recent report aims to provide an estimate for food waste and food surplus in primary production in the UK. The report includes an extensive literature review based on 2017 data, which has helped to provide the most reliable estimate for total farm food surplus and food waste to date.

The report states that approximately 1.6 million tonnes of food waste and 2 million tons of food surplus is generated, equivalent to 7% of the UK’s total annual food harvest and worth around £1.2 billion.

WRAP’s review covers waste occurring from the moment a food crop is ready for harvest (or animal to be slaughtered), looking into surplus food and waste in all areas across production – grading, packing, washing and customer rejections.

To contribute to a wider database of information and to better inform what action to take in the future, LEAF has been involved in delivering a farmer-led project to investigate potential areas of loss pre-farm-gate. This project has been achieved in collaboration with 3Keel and Innovative Farmers, supported by WRAP and made possible through funding from Defra. We’ve been meeting with some forward-thinking farmers who want to get a measure for how much crop is being lost in five initial sectors; Tomato, Egg, Apple, Wheat and Carrot.

Below we’ve highlighted two of the sectors we’re working with as a partnership, to give a snapshot of how our farmers are working to better measure losses… 

Apples

In apples, key areas we’ve been looking at are storage and harvest losses, usually as a result of apples not meeting market specifications. Unfortunately, it’s largely us, the consumer, who decides what the supermarket provides (to a certain extent, anyway), and we like our apples a certain way. But, that aside, apples can also be rejected from the main eating apple market because of rot or disease which develops during storage. This can occur for several reasons which are often very difficult to control, such as variety, type of storage, weather or picker ability and availability.

So, we’ve been trying to get more of a picture as to why this is happening, and to what extent, by gathering and comparing grade out reports from different participating farms. 

We’re also working with some apple growers to investigate the losses that happen during harvest. This can be down to factors such as wind blow, different varieties causing apples to grow in clusters or even the shape or age of the tree making it difficult to pick. It can also be due to economic reasons such as purposely being dropped because they don’t meet the specification or have visible rot or disease. Different labour skill and availability alongside being unable to optimise good weather windows for picking can also lead to increased losses during harvest. 

To try and quantify how many apples are being lost at harvest, and what some of the reasons may be, we are piloting a trial in October that will collect and compare apples dropped during harvest, splitting between “rots and nots” and accompanied by contextual information that will better help us understand why.

Wheat

On the wheat side of things, one of the areas we’re exploring is losses that occur during harvest.

Anyone who has been involved in a harvest in any way will know that it’s a busy time of year. Time is tight and weather windows small, with patience often stretched and staff really putting the hours in - but arable farmers do a great job in minimising losses during what can be a pretty stressful time.

During harvest, losses naturally occur from the back of the combine harvester. The amount ‘lost’ is a result of how the combine is calibrated, and it can be affected by factors such as weather, weather predictions, operators or machinery. 

We are utilising a common ‘hand-test’ that many arable farmers already practice - calibrating the combine and then measuring how many wheat kernels are under the hand. Through this information we will be able to get a basic idea of how much wheat is being lost from the back of the combine, and whether this is a substantial amount, or if it’s actually just extra feed for the farmland birds.

Farmers will then fill out a questionnaire which will put the reasons for choosing to calibrate the combine to that level into some more context, helping us to understand things better.

We hope to continue the research WRAP has reviewed in this recently published report, to build a better picture of what is being lost on farm, and the potential reasons for why. We think farmers are doing a brilliant job with minimising losses on-farm and are proud to be part of an industry that works within the supply chain to challenge themselves to consistently improve efficiency and sustainable production.

So, let’s do our bit in the effort on the war against waste – fighting on the home front in our kitchens and supermarkets and supporting our farmers on the front line.

If you’re interested in any of these projects, or would like to know a little more, please email [email protected] – we’d love to hear from you!