What more can be done to tackle food loss?

Written by: Marie-Claire Kidd | Published:
ood waste charity Feedback says lack of data across supply chains on where waste occurs, including on farms, is preventing real progress

Moves to minimise food loss in farming are gaining momentum with awareness of the issue growing yet campaigners say lack of transparency in supermarket supply chains means too much still rots in the field, in storage or in transit.

Food loss – the unintended wastage of food on farms or between the farmer and the retailer – includes food that is left in the field or decays in storage or transit. It is different from food waste, which occurs from the retailer through to the point of intended consumption, usually by choice or due to poor stock management or neglect.

The government is supporting hi-tech strategies to minimise and reduce food loss, and manufacturers are adding value to unwanted food and creating new markets. But food waste charity Feedback says lack of data across supply chains on where waste occurs, including on farms, is preventing real progress.

Innovations in food loss reduction include new products from manufacturers such as ChicP, Rubies in the Rubble and Rejuce, which work with the supply chain to make dips, preserves and juices from food that would otherwise go to waste.

Growers have traditionally done this, for example by making soup or jam from lower-quality produce, but these new companies use waste reduction as part of their marketing strategy.

Snact, for instance, started off making fruit leather by hand in a Hackney kitchen from surplus fruit from London’s wholesale markets. In 2014 it crowdfunded nearly £15,000, enabling it to partner up with Perry Court Farm, a family farm in Kent, to build a processing plant which saves fruit by the tonne rather than the kilo.

Extending shelf life

Innovations in genetics, packaging and storage are leading to collaborations between producers, supermarkets and universities. Schemes funded by the UK government’s Agritech Catalyst include projects to reduce potato greening, improve packaging and extend the “flavour life” of UK-grown apples (see box).

There are surprising innovations like the Italian brand Orange Fiber, which is spinning discarded citrus peel into silk-like material. It claims to retain Vitamin C to nourish the skin for up to 20 washes.

Meanwhile the campaign to change European law to allow food waste to be used as pig and chicken feed, and to introduce a legal framework for its safe processing, goes on.

Food waste is increasingly being measured and targets are being set to reduce it. The European Parliament is getting closer to introducing legally binding targets on food waste, and for the first time this April, Tesco recorded wastage in its annual report.

Demanding a clearer picture

However, food loss appears to be particularly hard to measure and thus set targets on. Head of communications at Feedback Jessica Sinclair Taylor says: “Food waste is undoubtedly out of the shadows and into the spotlight, but that doesn’t mean we’re seeing the solutions we need.

“Real progress would mean system-level change to tackle the overproduction and consequent waste that occurs at every level, from farms growing too much food in order to meet capricious supermarket demands, to supermarkets providing shoppers with the illusion of endless abundance and hiding the waste that is its result.”

She argues the first step is transparency, including at farms. “We’re calling on supermarkets to make it clear where their waste occurs and why, from the field to the shelf. Large consumer-facing food businesses like supermarkets need to work out their own methods for accurately reporting how much food waste they create, which should then be independently audited, including food that never leaves the farm due to not meeting cosmetic specifications.

“We’d count this sort of waste as the supermarket’s responsibility rather than farmers’, as they’re usually the most powerful player in any transaction. We see farmers’ role as working with supermarkets to ensure that waste at farm level and the reasons it occurred is accurately reported, but the onus is definitely on buyers rather than suppliers to make this happen.”

Food waste charity Feedback says lack of data across supply chains on where waste occurs, including on farms, is preventing real progress

Trouble for farmers

Feedback’s Gleaning Network – a group of volunteers who collect and distribute waste food from farms – last year rescued over 100 tonnes of produce across the UK. “Farmers have generally been very responsive, welcoming this historic practice to ensure the food they’ve grown won’t go to waste, even if it means giving a small fraction away for free,” says Sinclair Taylor.

“Although farmers are frequently concerned about speaking out about supermarket practices openly, for fear of losing buyers, they often talk to us about inconsistently applied cosmetic standards, lack of security in how much of their crop they’ll sell and short-notice changes to pricing.”

The Groceries Supply Code of Practice, enforced by the Groceries Code Adjudicator (GCA), has been set up to resolve some of these issues, but the GCA has come under fire for failing to carry out sufficient investigations.

“While we applaud the aims of the GCA, it’s clear that its current remit is chronically unambitious,” says Sinclair Taylor. “Its remit must be expanded to include indirect suppliers, including many farmers, as well as direct suppliers, to our supermarkets.

“Our research with suppliers to UK supermarkets around the world found that many still find they have little redress for unfair trading practices. This situation gravely needs to be addressed if either suppliers or retailers are to seriously tackle our food waste problem.”

The hi-tech strategies set to change everything

In the UK, potato tuber greening is responsible for 116,000 tonnes of household potato waste and a £60 million loss to UK retailers each year. Field losses cost the industry £37 million.

An 18-month collaboration between British potato company Branston, packaging company Amcor, Tesco, Waitrose, the University of Southampton and the James Hutton Institute combines material science, crop genetics and molecular physiology to reduce this loss issue.

Sensitivity to light is a vital component of the project, which includes design of new packaging films that can filter out wavelengths that impact greening and modified light regimes during storage and in-store. Recently developed genetic approaches will identify markers for genes associated with reduced greening, providing the foundation for a longer-term strategy to produce new non-greening varieties.

It’s Fresh! transit sheets and filters include ‘e+ active’, which removes ripening hormone ethylene from fresh produce in transit, in stores and in homes worldwide.

Manufacturer Johnson Matthey says the packaging protects growers from the harmful knock-on effects of downstream handling including unplanned temperature breaks, leading to fewer consumer complaints and distribution centre rejections, options to extend seasons, greater accessibility to global markets and reduced weight-loss issues.

Johnson Matthey and its academic partner Cranfield University is working on next-generation modified atmosphere materials to extend farm storage, supported by funding from Defra and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The team aims to create packaging which can actively manipulate the atmosphere within it and administer the ideal gaseous conditions at the optimum time.

Cranfield University is helping farmers extend ‘flavour life’ in British apples. Its three-year collaboration with Tesco, Avalon Produce, Richard Hochfeld, Chelsea Technologies Group and UNIVEG Katope UK is supported by £354,957 from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and Innovate UK.

UK apples are available until March, but late-stored fruit does not compete well with fruit from the Southern Hemisphere. Director of environment and agrifood at Cranfield Professor Leon Terry says: “The British apple industry is continuously being asked by UK retailers to extend availability. We need to improve how apples are stored so that the focus is moved towards ‘flavour life' rather than just being driven by firmness and sugar content.”

The team is building on research to develop sensors to inform targeted controlled atmosphere to suppress ripening while maintaining flavour. An extension of six weeks could mean an extra £10 million at retail for UK Gala fruit and more when extended to other cultivars such as Braeburn, Rubens, Kanzi and Evelina.

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