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Food waste - cost or opportunity?

It is an often quoted statistic a third of food produced is thrown away during its journey from field to fridge to plate to bin. 

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One origin of the stat is work by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. It estimated more than 30% of the food produced in developed economies such as those in Europe and North America is wasted, while the amount thrown away in less developed regions such as South and South East Asia is lower.


What is striking about the figures is where the waste occurs in the chain. Harvest and on-farm waste is about 10% of the total in the three regions featured. But in the more developed regions, storage losses are less than half those of less developed countries, where distribution losses are also higher. However, the starkest differences are in the consumption end of the chain. In countries where incomes are lower and food more precious, just 3% of food is wasted. In the richer developed countries that figure rises to 12%.


A recent report from Rabobank’s Food and Agriculture department estimates €60 billion (£44bn) of value is lost every year in Europe from food which never reaches the consumer.


Rabobank Food and Agribusiness supply chain analyst Paul Bosch says: “Looking at the food chain from farm to fork, most wastage occurs within and between food and agribusiness companies during agricultural production, post-harvest handling and storage, processing and distribution. For almost every type of food, producers account for more than half the loss of value.”


By focusing on improving the harvesting, handling and packaging of food and the monitoring of fresh produce, Rabobank estimates savings of at least €10bn (£7.4bn) a year could be made across Europe.

Food waste in the food chain in %

Food waste in the food chain in %
Source: UN FAO

Limited gains

Within the arable chain the greatest potential for waste reduction appears to be in the fresh produce and root sectors rather than the cereals and oilseeds sector.

Harley Stoddart, policy and research manager at HGCA, says: “Trying to reduce on-farm grain waste might only deliver marginal returns.


“A lot has been done to increase harvest efficiency in the last few years, while assurance schemes and investment in improved on- and off-farm storage means grain is kept in much better conditions than it was in the past. Breeders continue to tackle pod shatter in oilseed rape, while perhaps in the wider sense of ‘waste’ the biggest challenge is to increase yields while not increasing inputs – more from less.”

But a cereal or oilseed crop is not just about grain, a substantial amount of straw is also produced and focusing on its use might bring dividends for growers. HGCA figures show about 51% of the total mass of a wheat or barley crop is in the grain.


The remainder is made up of 43% straw and 6% chaff. For oilseed rape the proportion is 35% seed, 35% straw and leaf (half of which could be realistically baled) and 30% pod wall.


In a ‘normal’ year about 12.2 million tonnes of straw is produced with 5.8m tonnes used in animal bedding and up to a million tonnes used for energy and crop bedding. The remainder is incorporated back into the soil.


Mr Stoddart says assessing the value of straw is a useful exercise.

The waste conundrum

The reduction of food waste is a moral and political issue which farmers have to respond to and welcome. But it does pose long-term issues for farmers. If all household waste was eliminated then it would reduce the demand for wheat by nearly 400,000t. Potato demand would fall by 730,000t, carrots by 140,000t, onions by 130,000t, tomatoes by 49,000t and apples by 110,000t.


As waste is reduced, it will be important for growers to find alternative uses for crops, win export markets or new crops to grow if production and profitability is to be maintained.

“Straw can improve the structure of heavy soils and have a direct fertilising benefit replacing some applied P and K, although the nitrogen benefits will be marginal. But these benefits might be outweighed by selling the straw and applying targeted doses of fertiliser. Doing a reciprocal deal with a livestock farmer to provide straw and get farmyard manure is likely to much more beneficial than incorporating straw.”

Stricter grading  

The issue of waste management is more critical for potato growers and here the situation is getting more challenging. Consumption continues to be under pressure. The trend is for smaller retail packs of fewer but higher quality potatoes. That requires stricter grading resulting in the need for multiple markets for different potato qualities from top spec packed material to sales for anaerobic digesters or animal feed. The variation in markets can be seen in prices this season.


At the time of writing (first week of April 2015) the Potato Council is quoting an average free-buy price of £82/t, but growers with the best King Edwards can get £250/t for their crop. Lesser quality Edwards will fetch £100/t less than that, while whites range from just £30/t to £100/t.

How much of 1,000 tonnes of potatoes planned for retail sale is delivered to the retailer?


% loss of total

Tonnage loss

Remainder in tonnes

Field failure




Defects removed on-farm




Storage loss




Under / over-sized losses




Defects after washing




Packing and logistics loss




Retail storage waste




Total losses




Source: Produce World and Waitrose

Meanwhile, the processing sector is also focusing on potato use and waste management. Lamb Weston Meijer is one of Europe’s largest potato processors converting 1.2m tonnes of potatoes into 700,000t of product every year, including at its UK plants. A focus on efficiency means since 2008 it has reduced its potato use by 51,600t a year while still delivering the same output. If that saving is replicated across Europe then potato demand would fall by 1m tonnes every year.

A project by

A project by potato packer Produce World and retailer Waitrose identified where the losses were taking place. They estimated of 1,000t of potatoes planned for sale only 584t or 58% were actually fit for sale.Losses may have been concentrated in the grading and washing part of the chain, but those problems often stemmed from the growing process. 

It set out a plan to reduce losses by at least 60t in every 1,000t involving improving variety selection, more targeted use of irrigation, soil improvement and better storage management. This includes more rapid loading and cooling of stores and block loading and unloading to protect potatoes which remain in-store.


The reduction of food waste is a moral and political issue which farmers have to respond to and welcome. But it does pose long-term issues for farmers. If all household waste was eliminated then it would reduce the demand for wheat by nearly 400,000t. 


Potato demand would fall by 730,00t, carrots by 140,000t, onions by 130,000t, tomatoes by 49,000t and apples by 110,000t. 


As waste is reduced, it will be important for growers to find alternative uses for crops, win export markets or new crops to grow if production and profitability is to be maintained. 

Food waste beyond the farmgate

  • Waste from the UK’s homes and food service, manufacturing and retailing industries was estimated at 12m tonnes worth £19bn in 2013 according to Government agency Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP).
  • 75% of waste could be avoided, with 90% of it generated in homes and in food manufacture.
  • WRAP estimates 12m tonnes of food waste is associated with 20m tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.
  • WRAP estimates 730,000t of potatoes (the equivalent of 13% of the 2014 GB crop) are thrown out at home every year. There are 460,000t of bread discarded (the equivalent of more than 610m 750g loaves).
  • WRAP says there was a 21% reduction in avoidable household food waste between 2007 and 2012 worth £13bn over the five years.


WRAP has focused on food waste beyond the farmgate, but in conjunction with the Warwick Crop Centre, consultancy 3Keel and industry organisations it is conducting a study into crop losses, especially those in potatoes, strawberries and lettuce crops. One of the organisations involved in the project is Linking Environment and Farming (Leaf).


Its commercial manager Jeremy Boxall says: "This much-needed research will help improve our understanding of the economic cost of these losses to growers – and identify how we can tackle this complex issue together. Leaf would like to encourage growers to participate in the study and play an important role in creating a more sustainable and profitable fresh produce sector.”


More details can be found at the Warwick Crop Centre’s website here or by contacting project co-ordinator Rob Lillywhite on 02476 575 060, or emailing Robert.Lillywhite@warwick.ac.uk


Visit the WRAP website by clicking here


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