World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released the results of on-farm measurements taken to assess post-harvest crop losses. The report, No Food Left Behind: Underutilized Produce Ripe for Alternative Markets, examines four crops during the 2017-2018 growing season at a set of farms in Florida, New Jersey, Idaho and Arizona.
The study reveals that 40 percent of tomatoes, 39 percent of peaches, 56 percent of romaine lettuce and 2 percent of processing potatoes were left in the field – often due to weather, labor costs or market conditions. The report also highlights the potential to increase availability of fruits and vegetables in the United States by better utilizing what is already being produced.
The United States is a leading producer of agricultural products, and much of what is grown on U.S. farms feeds the U.S. population. In fact, between 60 and 75 percent of fresh produce available in the U.S. is produced domestically. While the current system efficiently delivers a multitude of products to market 365 days a year both domestically and via imports, there is room to improve the loss associated with the amount of resources it takes to accomplish this delivery along the supply chain, particularly at both endpoints – farms and retailers.
“When food is lost at any point on its journey from farm to plate, that loss contributes to wasted land, water and other resources used to produce that food,” said Pete Pearson, director of food loss and waste at WWF. “There’s incredible opportunity to learn what drives food loss in domestic production and distribution, and to influence import markets by finding better global practices that could reduce agricultural expansion in other parts of the world.”
To begin to understand just how much food loss can be prevented, WWF collected baseline primary data from farms on post-harvest losses of fresh and processing peaches, processing potatoes, fresh and processing tomatoes, and romaine lettuce. The term “processing” applies to produce that is transformed via methods such as juicing, drying and freezing rather than sold fresh. WWF also supported Santa Clara University on their measurement of loss in over 10 specialty crops in California. The two studies combined to produce both quantitative and qualitative data that paint a picture not just of the amount of each specialty crop that was underutilized, but also the drivers of loss at the farm-level.
Farmers are often faced with hardships and economic losses deciding whether to produce in excess of existing contracts with retailers, to rescue unmarketable produce or to allow outside organizations or gleaners to rescue this produce. Farmers also face challenging labor conditions, market dynamics and strict quality standards that make it increasingly difficult to find markets for all produce coming out of the field. This all leads to unintended loss of produce.
Researchers heard from growers who commented that consumer preferences, and thus retail specifications, lead to significant waste. In one peach grower’s eyes, “We throw away, daily, a quarter of a million pounds … Maybe it’s overripe, maybe it’s misshapen, maybe it’s a split pi t… I could take you to a packing shed and you’d watch the cull line and you’d go, why are you throwing that away? But that’s how particular the market is.”
Americans can begin to shift market dynamics by eating their recommended daily fruits and vegetables, which do not always need to be fresh. Currently only one in 10 American adults meet the daily federally-recommended fruit and vegetable intake. To make that shift, more research must be done to understand consumers – what they buy, what they eat and how those preferences are contributing to loss.
Over the upcoming growing seasons, WWF will investigate a variety of crops to better understand loss across the entire fruit and vegetable market and will continue to track other research on this topic to provide robust assessments of post-harvest loss in the U.S. specialty crop market.
“Our work is just beginning to address food loss at every stage,” said Pearson. “With continued commitment to understanding our trends, we can make supply chains more transparent, adjust agricultural purchasing, shift consumer perceptions of fruits and vegetables, and take better care of our Earth through more efficient use of food.”