No, not the drunk kind. The discarded, excluded, thrown-away kind. Did you know that up to 50% of all food produced – 2 billion metric tonnes per year – are “lost before they ever reach a human stomach”, as the Institute of Mechanical Engineers put it? That is massive. What a stark contrast to our food security worries, and what a slap in the face of the 830 million people who do not have enough to eat. Where does food waste happen, and what can we do to prevent it? A number of interesting reports have been published in the last 2 years, and to do the topic justice, I am going to split up the supply chain from farm to field. In addition, let’s look at different areas in the world, since here problems – and solutions – are vastly different.
First up: Farming and Post-Harvest.
In North America, farming and post-harvest losses are greatest for fresh produce, and is mainly due to two reasons: either the produce is never even harvested, or it is lost between harvest and sale.
Food can be left on the field for a variety of reasons – damage caused by weather and pests, economic circumstances (when the price of the product does not warrant harvesting costs, for example), or hedges (“insurance”) of farmers that plant more than they need “just in case” there are high prices or there is a threat of pests. This issue is exacerbated by the purchasing policies by major supermarkets, whose supply agreements include penalties if growers cannot deliver the quantity and quality originally agreed on – which encourages overproduction. In so-called “walk-by” cases, entire fields may be plowed under again because certain weather or market scenarios did not warrant harvesting. Then again, food scares might cause a dramatic drop in demand (remember for example the E.coli scandal in Germany two years ago which cost the European produce industry up to US$ 800 million) for certain products that then remain unharvested, or labor shortages decrease harvest opportunities. All told, in the US overall around 7% of planted fields, with up to 50% of fields of particular crops or operations, are not harvested each year. In the UK, up to 30% of all vegetables remain on the field.
After the harvesting comes the culling – the selection of products based on quality or appearance, including size, color, weight, blemish level, etc. We will talk about this issue more when we speak about the retail level, but consider these anecdotes which the National Resources Defense Council reports on – an American cucumber farmer estimating that “fewer than half the vegetables he grows actually leave his farm and that 75 percent of the cucumbers culled before sale are edible”; a tomato-packing factory reporting that “in mid-season it can fill a dump truck with 22,000 pounds of discarded tomatoes every 40 minutes” – those are strong statements. However, as we will see, in highly developed societies food waste is more widely found at the latter spectrum of the food supply chain.
Phew. To do both sides of the coin justice, let’s talk about production losses in Southern countries next time, and instead look at some solutions and best practices to the Northern problems:
- Communication and cooperation between farmers could provide alternative “insurance” systems to overproduction and one surplus crop could balance out another shortage;
- Consumer surveys could test supermarkets’ assumption that consumers really only buy homogenous-looking produce;
- In several US states (Arizona, Oregon, Colorado and California), donations of excess produce to local food banks are encouraged by law through tax incentives;
- Farmers’ markets are a way for producers to circumvent strict culling criteria of retailers;
- Community-based “gleaning” programs engage volunteers to gather left-over produce from the fields, which are usually distributed to food banks as well;
- and sometimes you just need the ingenuity of the farmer who cut down his misshapen carrots into “baby carrots” and sold them for $0.50 per pound instead of the $0.17 for normal ones. =)
One thing you can do: share some love for crooked cucumbers and gnarly carrots! Whether checking out your farmers’ market or the supermarket “discount” section (if available), through your purchases you are signaling that the curvature of cucumbers don’t need to be regulated by law (the EU law was repealed in 2008! Hurrah!) or by retailers.
I took most of the information for this post from the National Resources’ Defense Council Issue Paper “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill” and the Institute of Mechanical Engineers’ “Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not” brief, both extremely detailed and well-written reports. Next time more about the South!