Losses and waste in our food system occur throughout the food supply chain (FSC). Food is lost on farms; during processing, distribution, and storage; in retail stores and food service operations; and in households for a variety of reasons at each stage.(1) In this second part of the four part series I will present the issues related to food loss at the farm level, the causes and suggest some solutions.
Losses in farming
Losses at the farm level fall into two categories: 1) food that is never harvested, and 2) food that is lost between harvest and sale. (2) On a recent trip to the produce fields in Salinas, CA I was amazed at the quantities of perfectly edible fresh produce that was left in fields. In one of the romaine lettuce fields owned by Dole foods I spoke to a field supervisor who had worked there for over 40 years about the amount of waste. I asked if ‘his’ lettuce was edible and usable? He hung his head in sadness and said “I may be saying too much but we waste a lot of food, food that could go to feed hungry people.”
Causes and solutions for farm losses
Cause – production exceeds demand. When retailers place their orders it moves down the supply chain to the farms. There is a lot of speculation that goes on at the farm level in order to ensure delivery of agreed quantities of produce. Farmers have to make production plans that include unknown variables like bad weather, pest attacks and disease. Farmers make production assumptions to be on the safe side, and often times end-up producing larger quantities than needed. While some of the excess can be sold to animal feed processors, this is not financially profitable in most cases and costs less to just plow it under.
Solution: If farmers worked together and communicated with each other, they could reduce risk of overproduction by allowing surplus crops from one farm to solve a shortage of crops on another.
Cause – Produce doesn’t meet appearance standards. Some produce is rejected at the farm because it does not meet the ‘correct’ requirements for weight, size, shape and appearance. As a result, large portions of produce never leave the farms. While rejected crops can be sold as animal feed, it would be best if this food was used for human consumption or other uses.
Prevention: Retailers seem convinced that consumers will not buy food which has the ‘wrong’ weight, size or appearance. Personally, perfect tomatoes, apples and cucumbers make me think that the produce is genetically modified or in some way augmented. On the other hand, produce purchased at farmers markets or grown in my backyard is not so perfect looking and tastes much better and is better for you then the perfect produce in the stores. Additionally, selling crops locally and closer to the consumer bypasses the ‘quality’ standards set by retailers and could reduce the amount of rejected crops.
Cause – Perception of Abundance. I saved this one for last because here in America we think we can afford to waste food. There is this perception that food is cheep and we can get more when we want as there seems to be an endless supply of food everywhere. Restaurants and universities serve all you can eat buffets for ‘one low price’, which encourages people to fill their plates with more food than they can actually eat. Retail stores offer buy one get one free, which encourages us to buy something we may not be able to consume. Then there are those ‘man-sized’ meals in the market that are guaranteed to give you more than you can eat just so you can throw out what you don’t. As a society we pay for that in ways that go beyond our plates. Medical costs due to over-consumption and taxes for environmental pollution cleanup are just two of the costs associated with food waste.
Prevention – Change the perception. Educate people about food loss and waste. Get the message out at school, work, church or via political initiatives like the EPA’s Food Waste Recovery Challenge. We need to know where our food comes from, how it gets to our plate, the impact of our choices and how we can help stop food waste.
This post presents just a few of the causes for food loss at the farm level and how it can be prevented. Retailers assume that people want perfect produce, however there are more farmers markets now then ever before selling produce that wouldn’t meet retail specifications. Perhaps the solution is right in front of us; farmers grow organic and local, consumers buy from local farmers or grow your own food and become waste free.