Almost half of some farms' lettuce wasted as WRAP puts spotlight on primary production

WRAP has begun working with farmers and growers to improve forecasting and maximise crop utilisation after the organisation took its first steps towards mapping food waste in primary production and addressing its root causes.

An initial report on primary production food waste, focusing on strawberries and lettuce, found that up to 17 per cent of strawberry crops are wasted before they have even left the farm, while some lettuce growers report that up to 47 per cent of the crop is wasted on site.

Almost half of all lettuce crops lost to waste on some farms as WRAP puts farm waste in the spotlightWRAP’s latest report is the first indication of the scale of food waste during primary production, which encompasses the time from when a crop matures up until when it leaves the farm.

Strawberries and lettuce

The study, using data collected in 2015, measures the levels of food waste for two key crops - strawberries and lettuce - and indicates what kind of interventions would be best placed to tackle the issue.

For the two sectors studied, WRAP estimates that £30 million worth of crops endued up as waste in the UK in 2015 as result of a combination of a complex set of factors, including those relating to forecasting and product specifications and pest and disease damage.

The report estimates that, in 2015, over nine per cent of mature strawberry crops ended up as waste, equivalent to 10,000 tonnes of produce worth £24 million, while around 19 per cent of all lettuce crops were left unharvested, equivalent to 38,000 tonnes of produce worth £7 million.

For strawberries the main causes for waste were failure to meet quality requirements and pest or disease-related damage, while for lettuce, waste was mainly the result of weather, inaccurate forecasting from growers and their customers as well as strict head size specifications.

There was significant variation in waste percentages between producers - with between 3-17 per cent of strawberries ending up as waste, and between 7-47 per cent of lettuce ending up as waste.

While WRAP’s report acknowledges the uncertainty over what causes such variation, the size of the variation shows that there is scope to reduce waste through sharing best practice and benchmarking different supply chains.

WRAP suggests that a ‘whole supply chain collaborative approach’ is taken to map and identify solutions to food waste in primary production, solutions which should include better supply and demand management in lettuce value chains and better pest and disease management, varietal development, and flexibility of size specifications in strawberries.

Industry acknowledges need to cut food waste

Some 1.3 billion tonnes of food waste are generated every year around the world, with UK households throwing away around £700 a year in edible food, contributing eight per cent of annual greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the scale of farm waste has not been fully realised, with WRAP keen to address the early stages of the food supply chain as well as the late stages of retail and consumer use.

Commenting on WRAP’s latest report, 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.”

National Farmers’ Union (NFU) Director of Policy, Andrew Clark, added: “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. 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.”

Courtauld 2025 projects

In order to address the issues raised in WRAP’s latest report, and, indeed, the issues at the heart of the Courtauld Commitment 2025, WRAP has announced a series of projects 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 NFU.

The new projects fall under the aims of improving crop forecasting and matching supply with demand more accurately and increasing utilisation of what’s produced.

One of the projects designed to improve crop forecasting is being carried out by Asda’s sourcing arm IPL and agri-food value chain data company Agrimetrics and the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB), which is helping Asda’s 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.

Simon Davis, Head of Partnerships at Agrimetrics, said: “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.”

Furthermore, fresh produce company, MyFresh, is working with grower Len Wright Salads and customers Pizza Hut Restaurants and The Co-op to improve collaboration throughout the supply chain to address waste through improving communications around planning, forecast and delivery.

In terms of increasing the utilisation of what’s produced, a number of ‘wonky vegetable’ initiatives have been introduced over the last eighteen months, while 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, while the Co-op and Asda are working together to help growers improve their growing systems to avoid strawberry crops not meeting customer specifications and demonstrate the returns that growers can make if they invest in improved systems, while reducing food waste.

Finally, 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.

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