In July 2021, WWF published their report ‘Driven to Waste: The Global Impact of Food Loss and Waste on Farms‘. It added to the efforts of UNEP and the FAO to quantify how much food waste is made through supply chains, and help find solutions for Sustainable Development Goal 12.3.
However, the definition of food waste and the SDG 12.3 itself are not perfect. On page 7, WWF laments that:
“Currently SDG 12.3, which focuses on food waste, excludes harvest stage waste entirely, a huge oversight when an estimated 8.3% of food produced is wasted at this stage.”
This goes to show that food waste reporting is at the behest of global politics and flawed approaches to measuring the extent of food waste (see more about the politics of targets in Holes and Goals). WWF acknowledges that farm waste is very complicated to measure, and that is why it has been neglected in many studies, including in the UK, but this report illustrates just how critical it is to gather farm-level data. Without it, we will be underestimating the global level of food waste by a billion tonnes per year.
In 2011, the FAO estimated that 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted a year globally. Ten years on, WWF estimates that we lose 1.2 billion tonnes of food a year just on farms. This means that we could be wasted as much as 2.5 billion tonnes of food every year throughout the supply chain. WWF admits that this is likely to be an underestimate, because methods of self-reporting rather than direct measurement is common. (I explore the accuracy of food waste data collection in How is food waste measured?)
What does 1.2 billion tonnes of food waste look like?
- 1.2 billion tonnes is like 10 million blue whales
- 2.2 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent. This is like taking the emissions from 75% of all cars driven in the US and Europe over a year. Approximately 4% of all greenhouse gas emissions comes from food wasted on farms. In comparison, the aviation industry accounts for about 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
- 4.4 million kilometres sq is used to grow food which is lost on farms each year – larger than the Indian subcontinent. This land could have been used for habitat restoration or reforestation instead.
The report also highlights the impact on biodiversity, water, and acidification.
Challenging past assumptions
Myth: food waste on farms is more of a problem in lower-income countries, and higher income countries must focus on consumer-level food waste.
Truth: high- and middle-income countries of Europe, North America and Industrialised Asia, with only 37% of the global population, contribute 58% of global harvest waste (368 million tonnes).
Food waste campaigns, including in the UK, largely focus on reducing food waste at household level. But this report clearly illustrates that food waste is a system-wide issue and farm-level food waste is prevalent in high-income countries and must be given the focus it deserves.
Myth: food waste on farms happens because farmers do not have the right knowledge or technology.
Truth: food waste occurs for a number of complex reasons, including market forces driving farmers to produce food that is higher in value but is not suitable for the type of land they are farming on.
It is true that in some cases, better infrastructure will help communities save some food that is currently wasted. But the report presents a case study of chicken factory farms in the USA, which despite using advanced technology, result in waste because animals kept in battery conditions are more likely to die of disease, injury and distress.
Myth: feeding food waste to livestock is a solution to food waste on farms.
Truth: whilst using food waste as animal feed saves on average three times more emissions than sending it to anaerobic digestion, preventing the waste in the first place saves nine times more compared to anaerobic digestion.
Feeding animals food waste essentially monetises the waste stream, and can justify creating high levels of food waste. It also means that food is diverted from human consumption, at a time when 870 million people in the world suffer from food poverty.
What are the solutions?
WWF recommends a holistic focus of global food waste to best tackle food wasted on farms.
The report outlines the technological, infrastructure, agricultural practice and environmental factors linked to farm-level waste, including improper handling of animals, storage issues, extreme weather and pests; but also the social and economic factors involved, including market forces, imbalances of power between farmers and retailers, and lack of policy to drive change.
Rather than just advocating for better knowledge, practices and technology on farms, WWF hands over responsibility to NGOs, businesses and governments to drive solutions to farm-level food waste.
This is a refreshing approach, and they include 20 recommendations. The following are my favourites:
- Review the definitions and parameters used for measuring progress towards SDG 12.3. If harvest waste is not included, we will miss a significant data set in global food waste. WWF also emphasises that the definition of ‘waste’ must cover all points in the supply chain, to mitigate against blind spots in data collection.
- Ensure interventions are developed with the local context in mind. Without taking local contexts into account, such as gender issues and respecting cultural practices, food waste interventions will fail. Communities moreover might already have excellent food techniques that just need more support.
- Businesses to support greater crop diversity. With more variation in food types that businesses sell on the market, there is more opportunity for farmers to grow crops that are suited to their land type.
- Businesses to remove aesthetic standards. If fruit and vegetables do not look ‘perfect’, farmers are incentivised to throw them away or divert to animal feed. Removing standards for appearance, size and shape will reduce the need for farmers to overproduce food in order to meet the rigid specifications imposed by retailers.
- Businesses to embed fair practices in their strategic models. This includes paying farmers fairly and giving them more power, meaning more opportunity to invest in better technology, and protecting them from unfair trading practices, like last-minute order cancellations.
- Governments to set national targets for food waste reduction from farm to fork by 50% by 2030. The whole food supply chain must be included, and the baseline must be from 2015 which is when SDG 12.3 was introduced. Plus, food waste reporting must be mandatory, not voluntary, which it currently is in the UK, and food waste data collection must be given more financial and institutional support.
- Improve animal welfare. Improving the living standards of livestock will reduce food waste, as fewer animals will die from poor conditions. WWF emphasises that this is key, as animal agriculture has such a huge impact on land, climate, and water pollution.