A new report by WWF called ‘Hidden Waste: The Scale and Impact of Food Waste in Primary Production’ shows the extent of food waste in primary production in the UK (which means where food is grown and harvested like on farms and in fisheries).
It follows their report from June 2021 in which they assess how much food is wasted on a global level in primary production (my summary here). It couldn’t come at a better time with COP27 almost underway, and Defra having published a consultation on food waste reporting over the summer.
Current data estimates that the UK wastes 9.5 million tonnes of food a year, but this excludes primary production. This inclusion of data is crucial if we are to properly meet our food waste reduction targets and the UN’s Sustainability Goal 12.3.
- 3.3 million tonnes of food is waste in primary production a year
- Therefore, the total of food wasted in the UK is actually 12.8 million tonnes a year
- This equates to 6 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, making the total CO2 eq about 42 million tonnes a year
- Food waste in primary production accounts for 10% of agricultural emissions
- The land required to produce food that is wasted is 9,600 square kilometres, which is equal to half the size of Wales
- This amount of food is enough for 6.9 billion meals, a mind-blowing statistic considering the cost-of-living crisis and the fact that 7 million people are food insecure in the UK
- Around £1.8bn is lost due to this food waste, which totals a 30% loss to farmers
What are the drivers of this waste?
A number of reasons for this waste was identified in the report.
Meat and dairy
- Disease or injury of animals
- Damage or mishandling of products (like spilling milk or breaking eggs in storage)
- Rejecting of products due to contamination (like milk with antibiotics) or unrealistic specifications (like eggs being the ‘wrong’ size)
- Wrong species caught or unrealistic specifications on size of correct species
- Disease in aquaculture and damage during fishing process (like getting caught on nets)
- Spoilage due to delays in sale negotiations
- Loss during transport (like fish falling from containers)
- Left in field due to lack of market or available labour
- Unrealistic aesthetic specifications (‘wonky’ produce)
- Machinery malfunctions
- Damage during transport
- Spoiling in storage
- Retailers/buyers cancelling orders last-minute
I found it interesting that many of these drivers echo the findings in the 2021 report, and highlight the need for systemic change, especially around unrealistic specifications for produce and unfair business practices like delays in sales and cancelling of orders. Moreover, other drivers outside of the farmers’ control like the lack of labour on farms was the reason why over 120,000 healthy pigs had to be slaughtered last year.
What needs to change?
WWF criticises the government for focusing too much on citizen food waste (food that occurs in households) and stresses the need to refocus on systemic problems. They are concerned that farm-level waste was absent from the National Food Strategy and that the recent consultation on food waste reporting omits agricultural businesses. These are big gaps in food waste policy in the UK.
They also illustrate that farmers are not to blame for the majority of the waste in primary production. It is mainly due to systemic problems rather than farmer incompetence. They lay out some recommendations in the sister report Hidden Waste: Roadmap to Tracking and Reducing Surplus and Waste on UK Farms, co-written with Tesco.
I was slightly disappointed with this sister report because it focuses solely on supporting farmers to measure and report on their food waste. This is very important, but it won’t fix the underlying issues with waste in primary production. Reforming supply chains is a key solution to the problem, which was emphasised heavily in the main report and in last year’s report, but WWF and Tesco do not provide any detail on how that might happen.
WWF and Tesco say that they are focusing heavily on measuring and reporting because so little has been done already and to ‘balance the need for large system changes with immediate action’. But there are no details on the immediate action; how can farmers reduce their waste once they know how much they are producing?
In my opinion, there is too much attention on the numbers and not enough attention on the systemic solutions to tackle the numbers, even though they make it clear in the report that drivers like unrealistic aesthetic specifications, unfair business practices and lack of labour are key problems. The report says there is insufficient data in the impacts of these retailer-driven causes of waste, which surely calls for collecting more evidence for this as well as measuring the level of waste. The cynic in me wonders if Tesco prevented the report from going into detail about how retailers can change their practices and take responsibility for food waste on farms.
Their roadmap proposes spending two years supporting farmers to measure and report food waste in primary production, and not starting to review policy and practices that cause this waste until 2025. I would argue that these actions can be done simultaneously; we should be investigating the reasons behind farm-level waste alongside collecting clearer data, in order to accelerate policy change. We do not have time to waste two years collecting more data before any meaningful action is taken.
Hopefully this report at least can be used as an advocacy tool to press the government to act on measuring and reporting food waste in primary production, an important first step, and more reports on systemic solutions will be published soon.
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