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Food Waste: How the Agricultural Industry Can Help

By Shannon Bergstrom, Recycle Track Systems (October 13, 2020)

Food waste is an economic, environmental, and social disaster. In the United States alone, nearly 40 million tons of food is thrown out every year, which equates to around 40 percent of all produce in the U.S. food supply. Much of this waste is created at the consumer and retail stages, but a significant amount of produce is also lost in the production and post-harvest stages. There are, however, ways for the agricultural industry to tackle this food waste.

Some of the Major Causes of Food Waste in Agriculture

Within the agricultural sector, there are several key reasons for food waste that can be divided between losses in farming (production) and losses during post-harvest and packaging. Some factors that can create loss in production are unavoidable, and represent the inherent risks of agriculture. These include things such as damage from disease, pests, and weather.

Others are due to wider trends, such as low market prices making it economically unfeasible to harvest the produce since it won’t cover the costs of labor, packaging, and transport. There is also waste created by the fact that many farmers work to contract and, in order to fulfil these contracts, plant an excess of crops which are then left in the field after harvest. According to a recent study, these factors combined lead to a massive 33.7. percent of the produce they researched going unharvested.

While so-called walk-bys result in entire crops being left to rot in fields, the produce is ploughed under, meaning nutrients are returned to the soil rather than sent to a landfill. However, getting to the point of harvest requires huge amounts of resources, such as water, so left-to-rot produce still represents a significant waste. In fact, some estimates suggest “that 21 percent of water, 18 percent of cropland, and 19 percent of fertilizer in the U.S. are dedicated to food that is never eaten.”

Post-harvest, the biggest cause of waste is culling, whereby produce is selected or discarded based on factors such as size, color, weight, damage, and sugar content. Retailers and processors often have rigid specifications that farmers must abide by, and if produce doesn’t meet them, it is discarded – regardless of whether it is edible or not. This leads to situations where, as was found with one case study, “87 percent of undamaged, edible tomatoes harvested from a commercial Queensland farm were rejected and wasted based on appearance.” This level of waste is almost unfathomable, and unfortunately is driven by consumer demand rather than anything the farmers themselves can do.

What Is the Impact of Food Waste?

There is a severe environmental cost to this waste with, as previously stated, massive amounts of resources such as water, as well as energy, being used on wasted food. It is estimated that 7 percent of the world’s emissions that drive global warming, such as methane and carbon dioxide, are created in this way. There are also significant amounts of greenhouse gases produced by the actual discarded food, and while this is less true for walk-bys that are cut back into the ground than the waste that ends up in a landfill, it is still significant. 

There is also the economic impact, with food waste in America costing an estimated $218 billion every year. This is, of course, split across the entire supply chain, with end consumers responsible for the bulk, but that still translates as farms losing $15 billion per annum just on waste. 

The social impact must also be considered, with roughly 37 million people in America, including 11 million children, facing food insecurity. How then can it be justified to waste produce for the economic or aesthetic reasons previously discussed?

How Food Waste Can Be Tackled in the Agricultural Industry

While it may seem all doom and gloom, change is coming, and there are now various avenues for the agriculture industry to explore when it comes to food waste. One important factor is the implementation of educational initiatives in order to help teach consumers about the realities of natural produce, helping them take responsibility and stop demanding the impossible. Discolored and misshapen produce should be accepted, since this alone could help see a massive reduction in food waste, especially post-harvest.

Those in agriculture can also reduce food waste, and its associated problems, by utilizing social and governmental programs. For example, Farm to Pantry, which uses “gleaners” to gather surplus produce, such as that created through overfilled contracts, at no cost to the producers themselves. 

This is especially important as excess produce can be directed to food banks or similar organizations to help tackle some of the social issues of food insecurity. These kinds of donations have obvious social benefits, but can also help offset costs for the producers through tax breaks, which can in turn help make otherwise discard crops financially viable.

Another example would be the USDA’s Farm Service Agency’s Farm Storage Facility Loan Program (FSFL), which offers low-interest financing to build or upgrade storage. This in turn helps reduce post-harvest loss. Another way to reduce waste at this stage is through other practical applications, such as utilizing new technologies that can remove contaminants such as mycotoxins, molds, and pathogens without causing environmental damage.

Farmers can also look for alternative markets for the produce that would otherwise be waste. “Ugly” fruit, for example, can be turned into jam. There is the option to connect with the many businesses that are now trying to cut down the steps between the consumer and the farm, such as vegetable delivery boxes, which may be able to purchase excess or “ugly” produce that would otherwise be wasted

Food waste is a real problem not just in the U.S., but around the world. While the statistics show that much of the physical and economic waste comes from consumers and retailers, those in the agricultural sector still have a responsibility to do their part. Thankfully, through a combination of education, waste-reduction programs and practical measures, there are plenty of opportunities for them to do so. 


Shannon Bergstrom is a LEED Green Associate, TRUE waste advisor. She currently works at RTS, a tech-driven waste and recycling management company, as a sustainability operations manager.

Bergstrom consults with clients across industries on sustainable waste practices.

*All views, data, opinions and declarations expressed are solely those of the author(s) and not of Women in Agribusiness, or parent company HighQuest Group.


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