The farms of America — losing more than we realise

By Pete Pearson, Director Food Loss and Waste, WWF-US

© Global Warming Images / WWF

Food loss and waste is a major global problem. Estimates show that roughly one third of all food grown is never consumed. Not only is that a significant amount considering the millions of people in the world who don’t have the food they need, it has massive planetary impacts. Unconsumed food contributes to global greenhouse gas emissions, water withdrawal and resource consumption while costing the global economy an estimated $940 billion a year.

As a consumer, we might think of wasted food only as uneaten leftovers or produce which has gone bad in our refrigerator, but it’s a problem across the entire food supply chain. Producers, distributors, packinghouses and processors are faced with strict quality and cosmetic standards, packaging requirements and labor costs or shortages, which leads to lost opportunity for consumers to purchase nutritious food. In fact, while there are many places where food is lost along the journey, some losses can be traced all the way back to the farm, where crops may be unmarketable, go unsold or are left unharvested for economic reasons and tilled back into the soil.

When we look at the supply chain, we generally consider anything before the retailer as lost food (as it doesn’t have the opportunity to be consumed) and anything from the retailer to the consumer as wasted food. It’s often cited in research that developing regions have a higher share of unconsumed food that is lost, while in developed regions like the US and Europe, a higher share is wasted.

© WWF / Richard Stonehouse

Research from US-based ReFED in 2016 estimated that 10 million tonnes of food, or 16% of the total, is lost on the farm every year in the US. However, a new study by WWF-US shows that this number could be much higher and is highly variable depending on the crop measured and it changes from year-to-year. Across several dozen farms in the US, the measured average loss for several fresh crops at harvest in the 2017–2018 growing season — 39% of peaches, 40% of tomatoes and 56% of Romaine lettuce were lost.

While only accounting for a small group of crops on a limited number of farms, these figures show that even in developed countries like the US, there can be high post-harvest food losses comparable to loss measured in developing regions where there is not sophisticated cold chains and transportation. In summary, the issue of post-harvest food loss is not just an issue for countries in Africa. It’s an issue that must be addressed globally.

In most instances, food loss occurs because of a combination of market inefficiencies, poor information flows, labor constraints, and cosmetic and quality standards. Losses can also vary from year-to-year as market demands fluctuate and weather patterns change, but the damages to our planetary resources and biodiversity are real no matter the fluctuations.

It’s unrealistic to think we can consume 100% of everything we grow. However, by utilizing more, we can reduce our planetary impacts, or at least slow agriculture’s impact while still increasing the supply of fruits and vegetables, especially for those who need it most. By doing this, it is possible to stop the conversion of more land while also reducing water usage and decreasing the consumption of our natural resources. When we consider that in 2017 only 1 in 10 American adults consumed their recommended daily fruits and vegetables and that 65–70% of fresh produce available in the US is produced domestically, we know that nutritional needs demand increased consumption–and supply — of these products. There is clear opportunity to increase the availability of fruits and vegetables by better utilizing what is already produced without increasing farm production.

Farmers do not want to see the food they produce wasted, but they can only eliminate loss on the farm if the price is right, standards are relaxed, adequate cold chain infrastructure is in place, and the market demands that supply. Some of the ways we can encourage this shift is to increase transparency by actively reporting farm loss and encouraging collaboration between buyers and farmers to see food recovered to the highest profitable utilization levels. We can also raise consumer awareness and encourage trends that promote shelf-stable and frozen fruits and vegetables which can be just as good as ‘fresh’ and could help to combat food waste, especially in the offseason when domestic fresh produce is not available.

As we explore solutions to reduce loss and waste across a global food supply chain we have to understand the regional context and drivers. We can’t keep holding on to the notion that ‘food loss’ is only a problem for developing economies — it is not. We must create opportunities for all types of farms, supply chains and markets and continue to demand more efficient food systems. The work in developed countries like the US may be the most critical, as developing regions (like Africa) must leap-frog some of the more wasteful consumption patterns of developed countries. At stake is some of the last remaining habitat and biodiversity left on the planet.