The figures on the on-farm food waste mountain

for the first time revealing estimates of the food wasted on UK farms. Including the 2 million tonnes of surplus (usually human-edible food used as animal feed), there is a total of 3.6 million tonnes, more than the food waste and surplus at manufacturing and retail level combined.

Farmers are frustrated

This confirms what Feedback have long been hearing from UK farmers. But it would be a mistake to blame farmers for this waste. Feedback’s Gleaning Network saves leftover food from UK farms for charity, and we regularly speak to farmers who are devastated to have to waste perfectly edible food that they’ve toiled long hours to grow. Why? Feedback’s report Farmers Talk Food Waste found that UK fruit and vegetable farmers were forced to waste 10-16% of their crop due to supermarket and middlemen practices – including rejections of food for being the wrong size and shape, encouraging systemic overproduction by punishing undersupply, low farm-gate prices which sometimes below the cost of harvest, and Unfair Trading Practices like last minute order cancellations. We need to support farmers by reforming these supermarket practices, to help them reduce costs and waste.

The problems of sugar, milk and meat

Some of the more surprising findings of WRAP’s report are the scale of food waste occurring in sectors outside fruit and vegetables. For instance, they find that the highest volumes of food waste by weight occur for sugar beet – 347,000 tonnes or 3.9% of production. Sugar is not only bad for the nation’s health and teeth, but it has hugely negative impacts on soil erosion and uses up more land than the rest of UK vegetable production combined – we’ll be releasing more on this soon through our sugar campaign. The report also finds that the 4th most wasted product is milk and the 6th is poultry. Much of this is as a result of animal diseases and contamination, so this is not necessarily edible to humans. However, given the huge environmental footprint of meat and need to slash UK meat production and consumption to stay within safe limits of climate change, it’s startling to see such large volumes wasted. See our campaign The Cow in the Room for more info.

Producing food which is never eaten is a vast waste of natural resources including land, water and soil at a time of environmental emergency – this presents a huge opportunity to liberate land and resources which are desperately needed for reforestation and growing sustainable food. A report commissioned by the Committee for Climate Change recently found that reducing food waste could save considerable carbon emissions and liberate 482,000 hectares of arable land and 459,000 hectares of grasslands – and their calculations did not include food wasted on farms, which could contribute even more. We now know that planting trees is one of the most important ways we have to prevent a climate crisis – so this liberated land presents great potential.

Up to 5,000,000 tonnes

But WRAP’s figure is still an estimate – mainly based on non-UK data and self-reporting by farmers which is notorious for underreporting food waste. Therefore, this may well be an under-estimate of the levels of waste – the data isn’t good enough to tell yet. WRAP’s report estimates that the reality is probably somewhere in between 1.9 and 5 million tonnes per year – if it was 5 million tonnes, it would be nearly as much edible food as is thrown away by consumers.

Throughout the EU, farm-level food waste is almost completely ignored, assumed to be minimal and unimportant due to a pervasive narrative that this only a problem in the Global South due to lack of storage and infrastructure. Feedback have been campaigning hard to persuade the EU to measure food waste on farms, but the Commission recently made the terrible decision to exclude almost all on-farm food waste from the compulsory food waste measurement EU countries will have to begin in 2020. But due to campaigning, a ray of light is that the Commission has now pledged to release funds for some pilot studies to measure agricultural food waste in more detail.

The reason that UK data is still so shaky is that the government has consistently cut funding for food waste measurement and prevention. WRAP originally estimated that they would have robust data ready by 2018, but with limited funding this deadline has drifted. Now we know the scale of the problem, we need the government to fund detailed measurement of on-farm food waste to go beyond estimates and generate accurate baselines from which to set targeted reduction of on-farm food waste – like for other sectors.

Going backwards

We also call on the government to renew the Groceries Code Adjudicator and extend their remit to protect indirect suppliers like farmers from Unfair Trading Practices like last-minute order cancellations which cause waste. This is particularly important in the face of the current Adjudicator Christine Tacon’s surprising advice that the UK move back towards a system where Unfair Trading Practices are self-regulated by the industry. The Groceries Code Supply of Practice was self-regulated by industry for years before the Adjudicator was introduced, and without an independent regulator with power to punish businesses for non-compliance, supermarkets predictably failed to self-enforce the Code. It is difficult to see why voluntary self-regulation would be any more effective now. The farming industry and NGOs campaigned hard for years to achieve the introduction of a regulator with teeth to fight Unfair Trading Practices, and this gain must not be reversed.

Finally, Feedback calls on supermarkets to relax cosmetic standards on their core product ranges, pay farmers a good price for their produce, stop punishing their suppliers in cases of undersupply, and flexibly market gluts of produce. WRAP’s figures show that a worrying amount of produce is still being wasted, despite the launch of wonky veg ranges – retailers need to use wonky veg ranges to test their consumers’ acceptance of lower cosmetic specs, and then relax cosmetic specs for their core product lines accordingly.

The fight against food waste on farms continues! Want to witness the food waste first hand? Click here to get involved in one of our gleaning days.