Food waste is much bigger than previously thought if food lost at the farming stage is included according to a recent report by WWF.
The Driven to Waste report, released last week by WWF-UK and British retailer Tesco, finds that at the farming stage alone, 1.2 billion tonnes – or 15.3% – of food produced around the world is lost during harvest or slaughter operations.
Until now, farms have largely remained a neglected hotspot of food waste. This is in part due to difficulty in measuring food waste at the farm stage, particularly that which remains unharvested for a variety of reasons. In the report, the authors calculated global farm-stage waste from more than 2,000 farm-stage food loss and waste data points for different commodities and regions using online databases and literature reviews.
The report differentiates between direct and indirect factors driving food waste at farm level. Among direct drivers are biological and environmental factors that cause damage or biological spoilage to crops include pests/diseases, factors linked to weather, climate and soil, water availability, extreme weather events and natural disasters.
Technology and infrastructure examples include inadequate storage for harvested produce, poor harvesting technology, lack of temperature management of produce at harvest, and inappropriate fishing gear and lack of chilling of landed catch. However, the direct drivers of food waste at farm stage are influenced by wider, indirect drivers in the food supply chain.
The new estimates mean that as much as 40% of all food is never eaten when both farming and post-farming are taken into account. Previous estimates on food waste, including by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), only looked at waste occurring after the food has been harvested. As a result, they may be greatly underestimating the magnitude of the problem according to WWF.
The report also suggests that food loss on farms is an overlooked problem in Europe and other industrialised regions, which tend to focus on food waste happening at retail and consumer levels.
Contrary to the widely held belief that farm-stage food losses are particularly acute in lower-income regions, the new data shows that 58% of global farm-stage food waste actually occurs in middle- and high-income regions, despite their higher on-farm mechanisation, better infrastructure and more advanced agronomic practices.
One of the multiple factors behind this is agricultural overproduction and the saturation of markets, which drives prices down and creates a structural problem that perpetuates waste.
“Driven to Waste makes it clear that providing access to technology and training on farms is not enough; decisions made further down the supply chain by business and governments have a significant impact on the levels of food lost or wasted on farms,” said Lilly Da Gama, Food Loss and Waste Programme Manager at WWF-UK and one of the report’s lead authors.
“To achieve a meaningful reduction, national governments and market actors must take action to support farmers across the world and commit to halving food waste across all stages of the supply chain. Current policies aren’t ambitious enough.”
Jabier Ruiz, Senior Policy Officer for Food and Agriculture at WWF European Policy Office, added that, "The EU has long overlooked the importance of food waste happening at the earliest stages of the supply chain. These new estimates should come as a rallying cry: we can no longer close our eyes to this reality or postpone action.”
EU's position on food waste
What are the Commission’s views on the WWF report indicating that over 15% of food is lost before leaving the farm?
While admitting that food losses in primary production are leading to economic losses for producers and unnecessary environmental and climate impact, the Commission is sceptical about the figures in the report.
“There is lack of both knowledge and data concerning the amounts and causes of food losses occurring in primary production, not least due to difficulties in defining and measuring food lost at the farm stage,” a Commission official told The Brussels Times.
“The food loss estimates at primary production given in the WWF report are much higher than earlier EU estimations that roughly estimated food loss and waste at the farm level to be around 1% in the EU. As the case studies concerning the EU are scarce in the WWF report, further investigations would be necessary to analyse this difference.”
The Commission intends to investigate this issue further by assessing the amounts of food loss and waste in agriculture and by analysing possible measures to reduce these. Food loss quantification is addressed in a research call published in June this year under Horizon Europe (deadline 15 February 2022).
One of the explicit objectives of the reform of EU´s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is to address food waste. The EU has also launched a Farm to Fork Strategy which aims at making food systems fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly, including preventing food loss and waste.
An opportunity for the European Commission to highlight the issue of food waste at global level is this week’s UN Food System Pre-Summit, a three-day event hosted by Italy on 26-28 July 2021 at the Rome headquarters of the FAO.
The pre-summit is expected to set the stage for a global event in September by bringing together diverse actors from around the world to leverage the power of food systems to deliver progress on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The second goal is Zero Hunger to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. Another goal (SDG 12.3) states that, "By 2030, halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses."
The Commission is represented at the pre-summit by its Commissioner for Agriculture, Janusz Wojciechowski. At the opening plenary of the pre-summit on Monday evening (26 July) he referred to the Farm to Fork strategy as a central pillar of the European Green Deal, through which the EU “intends to bring radical changes across the entire food chain”.
“The Farm to Fork Strategy will also help consumers to choose a diet that minimises food waste, maximises health and nutrition, and brings full social and environmental benefits,” he said.
How does the Farm to Fork Strategy ensure action is being taken against food waste?
The Commission official explained that as part of the new “Farm to Fork” strategy, the EU will step up its action to prevent food loss and waste along the whole food value chain. Food waste prevention was first put forward as priority area in 2015 in EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan.
The Commission will propose legally binding targets for food waste reduction by 2023. These targets will be set against a baseline established following the first EU-wide monitoring of food waste levels according to a common measurement methodology.
EU rules on date marking will also be revised to in order to avoid unnecessary discarding of food linked to misunderstanding of the meaning of these dates. The Commission will also consider further opportunities to integrate food loss and waste prevention as part of all relevant EU policies and take action to strengthen the evidence base for food waste prevention. interventions.
What does the Commission plan to do concerning food losses at farm level?
The Commission underlines that it is committed to achieving the SDG Target 12.3. However, food waste measures adopted through EU waste legislation focus only on food which is treated as waste. Hence, crops that are not harvested or which are otherwise used on farm are currently not covered by these measures.
In line with the Farm to fork Strategy, the Commission intends to investigate this issue further by assessing the amounts of food loss and waste in agriculture and by analysing possible measures to reduce these.
The Brussels Times