Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Waste not, want not

February 1, 2019 by  
Filed under Fen Tiger

Blaming farmers for food waste is unfair, says  Fen Tiger.

Rightly or wrongly, farmers are blamed for a lot of things at the moment.

From mud on the road to climate change – or simply just working late into the night, someone seems to be pointing the finger at farmers. Sometimes the blame is justified, of course. But more often than not it isn’t.

Some building plots were sold in a village near us recently. Needless to say, there was lots of mud on the road. I heard one local gossip moaning: “I suppose the farmers are planting the fields out the back of the village – they never clear up the mud.”

But farmers are being blamed for bigger issues too. Take food waste, for example – a subject that seems to be headline news constantly. Up to 37,000 tonnes of food waste comes from UK farms every year, according to a recent report.

Misplaced criticism

Much of this comes from fruit and vegetable growers. In fact, some 16% of their annual harvest is wasted, according to the study by food and environment charity Feedback. This is enough to keep a medium sized city supplied with fruit and veg for most of the year.

It’s not surprising that people don’t like food being wasted. Think back to the days of intervention and how store owners were amply rewarded for piles of grain stored for large profits – and how public opinion was opposed to such a stockpile of food.

But should farmers take all the criticism for food waste? After shopping at my local supermarket, I noticed how sell-by dates expired within a few days of me purchasing the food. I never really fully understand how sell-by or best-before dates are calculated. Food is either edible or not.

To a great extent, farmers are powerless over what happens to food once it leaves the farm gate. How much is wasted is often down to processors, retailers, caterers and consumers – not the primary producer.

Supermarket power

To a great extent, farmers are also powerless when it comes to how much food is produced. Yes, we can ensure soil indices are well stocked, apply the correct inputs and give our crops a fighting chance. But at least 40-60% of the yield comes from what falls out of the sky. Or not.

Yes, growers can reduce this risk a little by intensive irrigation. But final farm output is still in the lap of the gods – in the balance of weather conditions and weather patterns.

Then there are supermarket contracts to consider. 

Some contracts with supermarkets penalise growers who deliver less than the agreed tonnage. This forces many farmers into over production because it puts pressure on them to supply the agreed amount – regardless of the weather – or face financial ruin.

In-store promotions can be wasteful too. Buy-one-get-one-free deals might ensure a bargain for consumers but they encourage shoppers to purchase more than they need. The cost sometimes comes out of the farmer’s pocket too, rather than being met by the retailer. 

Fussy eaters

Supermarkets can be fickle. I have heard stories of hauliers delivering loads only to see their consignment rejected on arrival. Or for it to be accepted at the last minute only after the supplier has agreed to virtually give it away because transporting the goods home again would be too costly.

The next problem involves the not-so-perfect shape. Farmers cannot produce the perfect potato. Some are big enough for a baker and others a good round shape for chipping. Vegetables rejected for cosmetic reasons – including colour and size – undoubtedly add to food waste. 

Yet much of this food is perfectly edible. Retailers will argue that consumers are too fussy. But maybe the supermarkets have too much control and their acceptance levels should be lowered. Rejecting produce because of its size, shape or colour is just another weapon to lower the price.

Yes, food waste is a major concern. It has to be tackled. And some retailers have started offering cheaper misshapen or wonky vegetables. It is a start but we all need to be re-educated when it comes to deciding when and whether food is actually unsafe to eat.


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