Farmers Need Help Fighting Food Waste, World Wildlife Fund Says

A recent study over one season of select U.S. produce farms finds an astonishing 56% of romaine lettuce, 40% of tomatoes and 39% of peaches never made it out of the field, according to World Wildlife Fund (WWF). In some cases, the market dries up. In others, weather damages the crop.

Those findings suggest the entire food system, including farmers and growers, must work together to ensure the supply and demand of fresh fruits and vegetables match up, says Pete Pearson, director of food waste at WWF. Doing so will ensure existing farmland stays in production without the need to expand agriculture’s land footprint and, in turn, threaten sensitive wildlife habitat.

Growers surveyed in the report initially expressed skepticism that WWF wanted to spend time on their farms, Pearson acknowledges. But after the research teams established trust with the farms, they captured valuable information that could help farmers improve their profitability and help reduce waste system-wide.

“It’s amazing to study how food ultimately gets to people to appreciate the amount of work it takes to get food to grocery stores,” Pearson says. “You see loss on farms—even, to some degree, entire fields that don’t get harvested at all. This is a market failure. Prices can be too low and entire fields are just tilled back in. They call it a walk-by field.”

Predictive Gaps. In many cases, growers’ hands are bound by a lack of visibility into marketplace demand for their crops beyond their typical buyers. Yet demand likely exists: People are eating more fruits and vegetables today compared to five years ago, according to data from The Packer 2017 Fresh Trends. Still, the WWF report states only one in 10 Americans eat the daily recommended servings of fruit and vegetables. There is an opportunity to deliver more fruit and veggie nutrients to people by just using and processing what farmers grow, even if it isn’t always fresh, WWF says.

Although other industries rely heavily on predictive analytics to ensure just-in-time production and delivery of goods based on demand, the produce sector isn’t one of them. The lack of a national tool for pairing buyers and sellers can contribute to the food waste challenge.

At least two promising ideas have emerged to bridge the gap. Pearson points to CropMobster, a digital service that helps local communities bring farmers and consumers together to reduce waste in the food system. He’s also got an eye on ways grocery retailers and meal-kit services such as Blue Apron and Hello Fresh could aggregate data about food-buying choices and help growers match their crop mix to meet that demand.

“I think that deserves more study,” Pearson says. “What is the best way to meet customer demand, ensure farmers are profitable and not waste food in the process?”

System-Wide Opportunities. Growers can be part of the solution to curbing food waste in the U.S., Pearson says.

“I think farmers are all for trying new things, but they’re driven so much by customer expectations and by their buyers,” Pearson says.

He adds: “Every farmer growing specialty crops would love to see consumption increase. [WWF would] love to see that too, but not by increasing the footprint of food production. We think we can make up the gap by using what we currently grow.”

Future research should focus on ways all food-system stakeholders can address the problem. It should also include study of commodity crops such as corn, soybeans and wheat. Those crops occupy a much larger land footprint than produce, Pearson says. Cropland expansion is endangering habitat such as the Northern Great Plains.

“According to WWF’s 2016 Plowprint report, our loss of native grassland in the Great Plains was more than what’s lost in the Brazilian Amazon,” Pearson says. “Most people think habitat conversion and deforestation happens elsewhere.”

To help farmers and the environment, all stakeholders in the food system must work to change consumer and policymaker expectations about what we eat.

“The food we eat represents a sacrifice of energy, water and wildlife habitat,” Pearson explains. “As a culture, we need to value food more. We need to all sit down at the dinner table and recognize the sacrifice.”

It’s estimated that 70% of biodiversity loss on Earth is linked to food and agriculture, Pearson says, referencing data from the Convention on Biodiversity Loss. “We need to understand food’s impact on the environment and fully utilize what we grow using fewer resources. Recognizing this connection will be an imperative for future generations.