Those were the words of one of the world’s greatest inventors, Thomas Edison. Our industry talks a lot about losses and productivity, but very seldom do we mention waste.
I’ve forgotten how many times I’ve sat in press briefings and heard how production of food needs to double by 2050 to feed the expanding population of the world. The productivity drum has been well beaten and subconsciously it’s a tune that’s been thrumming for a while.
Back in the summer I was ‘Zoomed’ to Brussels to hear more about the EU’s Farm to Fork and Biodiversity Strategy, part of which is to reduce pesticide use by 50% over the next decade. One of the Zoom speakers was a green lobbyist and she was arguing that this ambition didn’t go far enough.
To give some perspective, this particular EU lobby group are campaigning for a pesticide reduction target of 80% by 2030, progressing to pesticide-free production using agroecological methods by 2035. My reaction was pretty much the same as I expect yours is, so I asked the burning question – how will we feed the world? And the answer wasn’t what I’d expected and made me think.
I was told that the world doesn’t have a problem with producing food, it has a problem with wasting it. Given that 30% of food is wasted after leaving the farm gate it’s fair to say she has a point. Although I don’t fully concur with her mental gymnastics around the question, food waste is something that perhaps we need to talk about more.
The headline figures are fairly staggering, with millions of tonnes of food going to waste and households the biggest offenders. It’s something the UK has been addressing and WRAP, the organisation that delivers our Courtauld Commitment 2025 (a voluntary agreement to reduce food waste, cut carbon and protect water resources), reports food waste has already been reduced by 27% per person. That’s just halfway to delivering the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12.3 of halving food waste and reducing food loss by 2030.
There’s a climate change angle too – reducing food waste also reduces greenhouse gas emissions and it’s been calculated that reducing it dramatically could make a significant contribution to tackling climate change.
Food waste also happens before leaving the farm gate but is much harder to quantify, partly because every season, every crop and every farm is very different. Last year WRAP released a report which attempted to quantify waste in primary production and it’s no surprise that fruit and vegetable production are estimated as the most wasteful – with carrots averaging 33%, potatoes 14%, wheat and barley 11.5%, sugar beet 5% and oilseed rape 4.5% based on combined food waste and surplus volume (ie the food which doesn’t meet market spec and is either redistributed or goes for animal feed).
But according to the WRAP report, the top three sectors – potatoes, wheat and sugar beet – make up more than 55% of the total estimate for waste by volume. The huge range either side of the average in some crops perhaps gives an indication there’s room for practices to improve – potato losses (wastage) ranged from 9-24%, wheat from 5-14% and carrots from 17-40%.
Improving the fraction of the crop that commands the best price is something every grower is already striving for but often factors, such as the weather, play a hand that cannot be fully mitigated. In agriculture we prefer to give things a more positive slant and look at marketable yield rather than the fraction that is either left in the field or is unsaleable, but the bottom line is that increasing productivity can be achieved by reducing field and grading losses.
Arguably crop protection products play an important role in helping to achieve just this but they are by no means the entire solution. The rapidly developing digital world is bringing forward new management tools that are enabling growers to refine input and management decisions which undoubtedly bring improvements in marketability, but none of these are without cost. There’s a very strong relationship between productivity and profitability but they’re not the same thing. Where the line is drawn is different for every business.
As UK agriculture aims for Net Zero – just 20 harvests to go – minimising crop wastage is one of the ways of getting there. With current losses before produce leaves the farm estimated as larger than the food waste from the retail sector and the hospitality/food services sector combined, there’s definitely the scope to do better.
Based in Ludlow, Shrops, CPM technical editor Lucy de la Pasture has worked as an agronomist. @Lucy_delaP