Ugly produce and food waste on farms

31st Jul 19 by Phil Holtam

There is an overwhelming concentration of power at the buyer end of our food system.

Recently the argument was made that the link between ugly produce and food waste has been overstated. This was most notably articulated in a much shared interview with Sarah Taber in Vox entitled ‘The ‘myth’ of ugly produce and food waste’. Whilst some of the points made by Taber are well worth the attention of farmers, campaigners and policymakers, there were also some misrepresentations and inaccuracies about food waste that need to be addressed, especially considering a recent WRAP report showed that a shocking  3.6 million tonnes of food is wasted on farms in the UK.

Taber is absolutely right that a well-trained, experienced and skilled farming sector is key to proactively innovating towards lower food losses and preserving gluts. However, the idea that cosmetic standards leading to food waste is a ‘myth’ doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Our research shows that cosmetic standards do play a key role in driving waste on farms and it would be naïve to dismiss this issue. Our food waste hierarchy proposes a ‘best use’ scale clearly showing that food waste isn’t black and white.  There has and always will be a variety of uses for crops that cannot be eaten directly by humans, from processing to animal feed to anaerobic digestion to compost to feed the soil.  Nonetheless, edible food being put to other uses is not its best use in terms of efficiency.

Cosmetic standards causing food waste ain’t no myth

Whilst it would be wonderful if, as Taber says, all on-farm losses were entering ‘wonky veg’ lines or being diverted for processing, we know that a significant proportion of edible farm produce ends up being left in the field to rot or perishes post-harvest before even leaving the farm gate. Feedback has extensively researched food waste on farms in multiple contexts in recent years and we know that cosmetic standards are a consistent cause of losses. In some instances producers can find alternative outlets but this is sometimes an impossibility. Our research on food waste on farms in the UK in 2018 showed that supermarkets’ cosmetic specifications drive overproduction as farmers try to ensure they have enough yield to meet their orders, with the crops that don’t make the grade often not getting sold.

There’s a wealth of evidence to back this up. Research from the University of Edinburgh in 2018 highlighted that over a third of total EU horticultural production is lost for aesthetic reasons. In the US, a study carried out in North Carolina showed that over 50% of vegetables grown by farmers were edible but unmarketable.

Concentration of power

To take a step back, the reason for this is that there is an overwhelming concentration of power at the buyer end of our food system, leaving suppliers having to meet their customer’s stringent cosmetic specifications and carrying all the risk associated with food waste. Within our globalised food system, there are implications for farmers in the south exporting to the global north too. Our research into farm-based food waste in contexts such as Peru and Senegal, also found that producers are at the whim of their buyers. This can lead to, for example, the topping and tailing of beans and associated losses of 30-40% in order to fit supermarket packaging, as we found was the case for French bean growers in Kenya.

We can all recognise Taber’s point that farmers have to do their utmost to reduce food losses on the farm. However, to cast farmers as the agents of failure in the story of on farm food losses is inaccurate and does them a serious disservice. Farmers are among the very last people who would want to see their crops wasted – their living depends upon finding a viable market for their produce. What Taber’s analysis misses is that food losses on farms often occurs due to market dynamics that are entirely out of the hands of growers and, as it stands, this is a unfair distribution of risk that threatens the security of farmer’s livelihoods.

Take, for example, the situation for English apple producers in 2018. The summer drought lead to apple yield forecasts being significantly lower than the eventual crop (thanks to good levels of rain in August, that year ended up being one of the best growers can remember). Yet in the time between the yield forecast and harvest, supermarket pack houses imported high quantities to make up for the anticipated drought-affected UK crop. Storage facilities hit capacity and with apple supply far exceeding demand there was a consequent plummet in prices. The market rate dropped far lower than the cost of production and importantly, in light of Taber’s point about processing, the price crash was reflected in the juice market too.

When the farm gate price of a crop falls below the cost of production, why would a fruit producer pick their crop at a loss? Whilst some initiatives do exist to deal with this problematic situation, such as our very own Gleaning Network or the the concurrent picking program in California, we are still a long way from capturing all edible farm based food losses when prices fall. In these cases, the already wafer fine margin for producers is eroded even further. When low prices are forced on producers by powerful retailers, it’s impossible to expect farmers to pay their staff or themselves a living wage. Herein lies the unjust crux of our food system; cheap food in supermarkets is dependent upon the retail sector driving a hard bargain with already pressed farmers, often overstepping the line by use of unfair trading practices. And yes, this includes strict cosmetic specifications being dealt to farmers who get left with crops they simple cannot sell.

It is these ongoing and well-documented practices on the part of supermarkets that drive overproduction, waste and threaten the livelihoods of small and medium sized producers, more than the ‘wonky veg’ startups Taber takes aim at. A clear negative outcome of the power of retailers is that agricultural workers in the UK (let alone in less well-off places) face low wages and poor employment conditions, whilst the horticulture sector as a whole struggles to retain and recruit staff.

What’s the solution?

If there’s an answer to reducing ‘wonky veg’ then Taber is right that more processing, on farm or nearby, is part of the answer- this is something that Feedback are enabling in Sussex and Kent through our participation in the FLAVOUR project. Though it’s also about ending regulation on cosmetic standards and actors along the food chain changing their expectations of what fruit and veg looks like in the interest of reducing waste. Here it’s worth echoing the words of researchers looking into food losses on farms due to cosmetic standards in Germany and the Netherlands who argued that “market contextual factors such as competition, pricing, production costs, logistics, and especially consumer demands need to change so we can avoid wasting, and provide ugly fruits and vegetables with a viable future”.

Feedback is proud to have been at the forefront of addressing the very real problem of cosmetic standards leading to food waste and supporting initiatives that use ugly surplus in a creative and sustainable way. We’ll continue to do so.

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