More than £1bn of food wasted before leaving farms

New insights from UK sustainability body WRAP, show that around 3.6 million tonnes of food waste worth £1.2 billion is created every year, before even leaving the farm.

The report, which assessed the core categories of vegetables, fruit, cereal crops, dairy and livestock, sheds light on food surplus and waste on farm and says more work is urgently needed in this critical area of the food chain.

Post-harvest factors such as fluctuations in supply and demand, product handling, storage conditions and failure to meet quality requirements are some causes of food surplus and waste. Accounting for 7.2% of total production, it is 10 times the amount that is wasted through retail, but half the amount that is wasted in households (7.1m tons).

Sugar beet is the product wasted the most, with 347,000 tons thrown away each year, while poultry waste (66,000 tons) is worth the most at £85 million.

When grouped by product type, horticultural crops make up 54% of the total, cereals 30%, livestock 8% and milk 8%.

A significant factor is also the percentage of a crop that becomes waste. For example, of the top twenty foods listed, milk has the highest total production by weight at nearly 15 million tonnes. In this case, 116,000 tonnes of milk waste arose representing 0.8% of total production. While for lettuces, the percentage of waste is nearly 25% of total production (104,000 tonnes).

The figure includes 2m tons of surplus edible food that does not make it to a retailer or other intended buyer, but is diverted to feed livestock or distributed to charities. The rest is disposed of by being ploughed back into fields, composted or used to create energy.

Peter Maddox, director WRAP said: “This is the most detailed study of food surplus and waste in primary production undertaken for the UK, and a key finding has been the range of waste across all food categories. There is huge potential to reduce the amount of surplus and waste by promoting best practice, and that’s where our work is now focussed.”

Jack Ward, chief executive of the British Growers Association said: “From a grower’s perspective, it is critical that we maximise sales of the produce grown on our land for its primary use. Any product left on farm; whether it fails to meet specification or is rejected for quality factors, is very frustrating. The costs of production are identical in either case, so for a grower the lack of return from unsold produce puts already slim margins under even greater pressure.

“As the sustainability of our food production systems comes under increasing scrutiny, reducing waste at every point in the food supply chain will be an increasing priority. Having new insights into the scale of food waste and under-utilised production on farm is a positive step forward, and a resource that should be of use to many growers and the wider supply chain.”

WRAP is supporting several areas of work to refine its findings, and directly impact on waste arising in the field.

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