Researchers zero in on farm level food waste

It’s harder to track and even harder to fix than waste higher in the value chain

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A first-of-its-kind Canadian study has found that there’s more food loss at the production level than previously thought.

The “Avoidable Crisis of Food Waste” study found that 24 per cent of food volume wasted is lost at the production level. A further 34 per cent of the food wasted is lost at the processing level. Manufacturing’s proportion is 13 per cent and at a household level it is 13 per cent.

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The study, conducted by Value Chain Management International, with Second Harvest, the country’s largest food rescue organization, found that 58 per cent of all food produced is wasted, but that 32 per cent of that lost food could be rescued and put to other uses.

Why it matters: Food waste has become a topic of interest as the environmental impact of food and the efficiency of its distribution comes under more scrutiny.

Value Chain Management (VCM) International had to create new solutions to measuring food waste as it looked at actual industry data. The organization has experience with measuring value chains — what goes in and what comes out — so it was able to figure out how to look at multiple data sets and industry information. Two surveys were circulated to industry, says VCM International CEO Martin Gooch. The study was funded in part by the Walmart Foundation.

“This is the first time in the world anyone’s gone back to the primary industry and got food loss and waste,” he said. The study took a year and was released recently at Second Harvest’s operation in Toronto.

Unused food from production to the end of processing and manufacturing is called food loss in the study. Food not used at the distribution, retail and consumption level is called waste.

Weight of the waste was measured in this study, whereas before it was estimated based on food production and sales numbers in other studies.

“Weight gives you a real insight into what is going on,” said Gooch. Real benchmarking should allow businesses and sectors to compare themselves to each other, which is often an impetus for change.

Gooch had an advisory committee for the study made up of representatives of processing and farms groups, along with leading thinkers on food waste from universities.

Food loss varies among agriculture commodities

Researchers faced challenges quantifying the amount of food loss on farms.

“It was very hard to determine what losses were due to weather and what losses were due to equipment, versus a customer cancelling an order,” he said. Grains used for animal feed were taken into account.

Waste on fruit and vegetable farms was easier to measure than waste on livestock or grain farms. There’s a fairly defined pattern of loss on produce farms.

The system of contracting production means that when production targets are exceeded or contracts are cancelled, significant amounts of produce rots in the field.

Labour shortages also are more acutely felt and show in food loss in the produce sector where manual labour is still responsible for much of the harvest.

Gooch recounted several stories of produce and greenhouse farmers who had commitments from buyers that fell through resulting in the loss of an entire crop or growing cycle.

“The key thing for us is that farming is negatively impacted from food and waste,” said Gooch, who said he has heard the argument that food loss is good for the economy. Any crop not sold is a financial loss for farmers in lower revenue and costs already incurred.

A farmer would make more money by being able to sell that crop to a new market, or to replace an imported product, he said.

The data Gooch has for the meat and dairy sector show much lower food losses in those areas.

Gooch says he is confident that attributing 24 per cent of all food loss to the production area is conservative, despite lacking some data in the meat production area. The 24 per cent loss includes grading. He said that only six per cent of food loss is avoidable in the production area.

Meat and dairy production have lower losses, according to the research, at 3.03 million tonnes for dairy and 1.28 million tonnes for meat and poultry. That compares to an estimated 21.89 million tonnes for field crops and 7.97 for produce. Much of the losses in primary production in the crops side eventually goes to animal feed, said Gooch, which is why “our primary focus is avoidable losses/wastes that occur along the chain.”

Gooch says there is more analysis to do in the area of food loss in the primary production area.

Responsibility rests with the value chain

Gooch says that engagement is needed across the industry, with each area of the value chain identifying steps it can take.

However, there needs to be more co-ordination, he says. Better planning and open communication can mean less waste. That means from the producer level through purchasing, distribution and retail or food service. There are still significant disconnects despite communications and business technology and years of talking about improving supply chains.

Gooch says he has a friend who worked in food retailing, who now works on the supply side.

He told him that retailers thought they were being strategic in how they managed their supply, but he now realizes that they were not.

If one takes the 38 per cent of the 58 per cent of food wasted that could be recovered, that means there’s enough food being produced in Canada to feed 50 million people, said Gooch. Yet, there are four million people in Canada who are food insecure.

“We can’t allow this to happen,” he said.

About the author


John Greig

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig



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