We are on the verge of war…..a war on “waste”, which we expect to see increases in productivity, profitability and sustainability across the agri-food chain, and in which technology will be a major catalyst for change.
Yet despite the troops rallying for this war, it’s been difficult to gather robust data around the scale of the problem, particularly in primary agriculture.
Food grade waste
But in a recent report published by WRAP, a review of the available data reveals some shocking statistics about how much of the huge effort by farmers to produce food-grade products actually ends up as waste.
An estimated 7.2% of all food harvested ends up as food surplus and waste. That’s a whopping 3.6 million tonnes which could have had a market value of £1.2 billion.
Potatoes, wheat and sugar beet collectively make up more than 55% of the total estimate of waste in primary production. Horticultural crops make up nearly 60% of the rest, with cereals nearly a third, livestock 4% and milk 6%.
So what counts as waste? If food products that were originally intended for human consumption are disposed of, composted, ploughed in or sent to an anaerobic digester they count as waste. If, however, they can be redistributed across other supply chains, fed to livestock or used as part of the so-called “circular economy” to produce bio-based materials, they are considered “surplus.”
There is no doubt that innovation is at the heart of winning this war on waste. And progress is being made.
Matching demand with supply
There are companies in our membership, such as Agronomex and COGZ, with software platforms designed to match supply and demand for surplus food-grade product, bringing additional sales opportunities to the producers.
Predictive yield mapping tools have been developed for crops such as lettuces through the IceCam project with G’s – and the Potato Yield Model, thanks to NIAB and Agrimetrics. These help reduce over-planting and enable better supply chain management through line-of-sight of expected timings and yields.
The Eastern Agri-Tech Innovation Hub, hosted by NIAB, offers a resource for innovators to develop their ideas and was the first home to Entomics as they developed their black solder fly innovations to reduce food waste. That activity is now underway within Agri-Grub in partnership with AMT Fruit, feeding the fly larvae on fruit waste.
Part of the reason it has been so difficult to establish the scale of the problem in primary agriculture is the difficulty in extrapolating losses between seasons – environmental and weather conditions almost certainly vary and the absence of year-on-year data collection has made calculations around waste challenging.
And, unlike household waste, which still far outweighs the waste in any parts of the value chain, there are limited opportunities for farmers to influence the scale of the problem. At a pre-harvest level, pest and diseases and extreme or unhelpful weather events are beyond the control of most producers yet can contribute to loss of marketable yield.
Precision agriculture and smart water
Here again, precision agriculture tools can help with reduction of waste of inputs, with precision irrigation specialist Wroot Water, and mapping tools such as Omnia, and data solutions from Pix4D, with imaging and sensing technologies from companies such as Crop Angel, DroneAG, fieldmargin and the Small Robot Company.
Consumer behaviours linked to buying decisions in the supply chain and retailers can also influence supply and demand, and shortcomings in post-harvest storage and failure to meet quality requirements are another major source of waste generation.
Yet again, storage solutions and monitors to reduce damage to the product are being used, such as the award winning ImpacTrack by Martin Lishman which can be made to mimic different food shapes, Roboscientific’s electronic “noses” to detect rots in potato stores and Consus Fresh with process innovation to help manage the transition from fields to packhouses to reduce waste.
The UK’s Innovative Farmers programme is piloting a farmer-led approach to gathering data on food waste in the apple, carrot, egg, tomato and wheat sectors in England. The work is supported by WRAP and funded by DEFRA, and the resulting data will be used to refine future waste estimates.
We’ll be talking about our Innovative Farmers project around the use of digestate, a by product of anaerobic digestion to improve soils health at our Pollinator on the 12th September in Cambridge.