Early WRAP research published at the end of September highlights the significant financial, environmental and efficiency benefits inherent in tackling food waste in primary production.
The first indication of the scale of food waste in primary production* has been measured by WRAP for two key crops: strawberries and lettuce. The details come as WRAP also announces a series of sector-wide projects tackling food waste in primary production that have brought together farmers, growers, producers, hospitality & food service businesses and retailers through the organisation’s Courtauld Commitment 2025.
A number of pioneering projects** have now begun, focusing on priority crops including soft fruit, root vegetables and salad. Each is addressing common issues that arise in production, and piloting innovative models and interventions to overcome these difficulties. The work will move towards developing guidance and best-practice case studies to help others take action, and expand the working practices more widely.
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).
David Moon, Head of Sustainable Food at WRAP explains “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. We’re using our experience in mapping waste and bringing together key stakeholders to pinpoint where, why and how much waste arises on farm. This work will help the UK food supply chain become more efficient and competitive, which is 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. It’s an exciting new area of work and we’re delighted to have the support of key sector groups.”
Research by the not-for-profit sustainability body highlights the benefits of tackling food waste. For the two sectors it assessed, strawberries and lettuce, WRAP estimates that £30 million ended up as waste in the UK, in 2015. This waste was the result of a complex set of factors relating to forecasting and product specifications, and pest and disease damage, being cited most frequently.
The study estimates that just over nine per cent of mature strawberry crops ended up as waste in 2015, equivalent to 10,000 tonnes 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. For lettuce, WRAP found that around nineteen per cent of all lettuces were unharvested in 2015, with 38,000 tonnes lost across the sector worth an estimated £7million. 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.
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. Whilst there is currently uncertainty around what causes this variation, it demonstrates scope to reduce waste by identifying and sharing best practice, and benchmarking different supply chains.
WRAP believes that addressing food waste in primary production requires a combination of different interventions (depending on the sector) and a collaborative approach across the supply chain. This would involve, for example, better supply and demand management in lettuce value chains and, for strawberries, greater flexibility is required to enhance supply chain management, and consideration of new varieties.
NFU director of policy Andrew Clark, said: “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. 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.
“Farmers and growers want to minimise waste as much as possible, and they work hard to tackle pests and disease by improving agronomy, harvesting and processing techniques. The whole industry needs to pull together to identify solutions right across the supply chain and do their bit to keep waste to a minimum.”
Andrew Opie, Director of Food and Sustainability at the BRC, said ‘We know cutting food waste on farm is key to developing a sustainable supply chain and we also know retailers are in a key position to do this, which is why they are already working with farmers 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.’
Improving crop forecasting and matching supply with demand more accurately
- Under Courtauld 2025, Asda’s sourcing arm IPLis adding to its 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.
- Fresh Produce Specialists MyFresh, their grower Len Wright Saladsand customers Pizza Hut Restaurantsand The Co-op, have already been working collaboratively to address waste in the supply chain, this pilot is looking at improving communications around planning, forecasting and delivery – a key action in reducing primary production waste. Best practice will be shared to maximise impact across other supply networks.
Increasing utilisation of what’s produced
- A number of ‘wonky vegetable’initiatives have been introduced by retailers over the last eighteen months, which offers an opportunity to investigate those that have delivered the greatest impact on food waste, whilst delivering new business benefits. WRAP is focussing on carrot and parsnip schemes and working with several Courtauld 2025 signatory supply chains to gather data and opinions from growers and suppliers. This will be used to refine best practice to be shared throughout the sector to leverage greater impact.
- A common cause of strawberry waste is product not meeting customer specifications, because of fruit being misshapen (the most commonly cited reason) or suffering from pest or disease-related damage. One way growers can manage this is through improved growing systems, however the investment costs can be a barrier to this. The Co-op, IPLand Asda are tackling this 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 is also leading a programme to build insights into food waste levels across primary production, and the potential for a UK-wide measure of food waste at this stage of the supply chain. WRAP and the Agrimetrics ‘Big Data’ Centre are collaborating on approaches to improve the understanding of food waste and WRAP will be looking to secure funding to expand this work in the future. This will build on this preliminary work and provide valuable insights into priorities for action such as the types of crops and livestock, and factors leading to waste. It will draw on a range of approaches including data modelling, which can help provide estimates more efficiently than traditional measurement techniques like large-scale in-field assessment.
Simon Davis, Head of Partnerships, Agrimetrics, said “As Courtauld 2025 signatories, we are committed to developing evidence based insights to support the reduction of food waste across the Agri-food system. 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. We look forward to building on this work in partnership with WRAP, providing Agri-food businesses with modelling approaches that enable them to better quantify, measure and manage food waste across key sector groups.”