Here’s how agriculture can win the war on waste

  • Nearly one billion tonnes of food are wasted each year, 14% of which goes from harvest to retail.
  • The sector could use technology and data transparency to prevent food from being rejected when it reaches the buyer, instead of diverting it for use elsewhere.
  • Supermarkets and restaurants are the most visible sources of waste, but it’s the businesses further upstream in the production process that have to do the most to get their homes in order.

According to United Nations Environment Program Food Waste Index Report 2021, nearly one billion tons of food are wasted worldwide every year. In a world where one in nine people suffer from hunger or undernourishment, almost a third of the food produced is sent to landfill or reinvested in the fields.

COVID-19 has highlighted the problem of food waste for those lucky enough not to spend too much time worrying about food safety. One of the enduring images of 2020 was the images of thousands of liters of milk dairy farms being washed away, as demand from the hospitality sector plummeted.

One of the side effects of the lockdowns has been that consumers have become more aware of the amount of food wasted in their homes. The volume of household waste has fallen by a fifth in the UK during each lockdown, and people consumption patterns amended. Notably, 63% of UK shoppers bought food in smaller quantities and more than three-quarters (76%) chose more frozen food. However, we cannot yet be certain that this will last, and there are still a significant number of consumers who are not ready to integrate the ethics of food waste into their shopping habits.

The responsibility for solving the waste problem should not rest solely with consumers. One solution could be for companies, governments and NGOs to push consumers to make sustainable choices. For example, information campaigns could focus on so-called ‘adjacent advantages’ of these choices – for example, home freezing saves money while reducing waste. Stores can help reduce waste by ensuring they don’t offer “buy one, get one free” discounts on perishables.

pull together through the chain

In recent years, we have seen the retail and hospitality sectors take steps to reduce waste. However, the amount of food wasted in these areas (two percent and five percent respectively) pales in comparison to the 14% of product wasted between harvest and retail. Stakeholders in the agricultural supply chain not only have an ethical duty to address this issue, but also a business imperative. If consumers are doing their part to act responsibly when it comes to waste, they may take a dim view of companies that don’t engage.

However, the amount of food wasted in hospitality and retail pales in comparison to the 14% wasted between harvest and retail.

Image: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

No link in the food chain is free from waste. I have argued before that the agricultural industry should aspire to develop fragmented supply chains into a collaborative, non-linear, data-driven network. A truly connected system using a common language would identify exactly where food waste is occurring and act collectively to address it. With so many players involved, from harvesting to processing, logistics and more, this remains a long-term goal. But there are also temporary solutions that can be put in place now.

The benefits of collaboration

Closer collaboration between growers, agronomists and agricultural manufacturers can already help maximize yields at the field level and also prevent food spoilage. For example, if an agronomist has access to granular field-level data (such as soil, seed variety, scouting, sunlight, and rainfall), they can more confidently advise on inputs, such as fertilizers and pesticides, to mitigate adverse weather conditions. Manufacturers of these inputs can also use field data to create and market better fertilizers and pesticides.

Bringing other forms of measurement closer to the producer could have equally important implications for waste reduction. Buyers set particular standards for products in their contracts, based on factors such as quality, residue levels and aesthetics. Often these are not assessed until the food reaches the food processor or manufacturer. At this point, if he doesn’t meet the grade, it’s usually too late to turn him away. But a tomato that isn’t suitable for a supermarket shelf in one country may be perfectly suited for export to another market or for use in tomato soup.

The answer may lie in giving the producer – or at least someone closer – the means and the responsibility to evaluate the product immediately after harvest, or even before harvest, against the criteria defined in the contract. smart buyer. This would give them a greater opportunity to seek alternative routes before the products spoil.

Two billion people in the world are currently malnourished and according to some estimates we need 60% more food to feed the world’s population by 2050. Yet the agricultural sector is ill-equipped to meet this demand: 700 million of its workers currently live in poverty, and it is already responsible for 70% of global water consumption and 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

New technologies could help our food systems become more sustainable and efficient, but unfortunately the agricultural sector has lagged behind other sectors in terms of technology adoption.

Launched in 2018, the Forum’s Innovation with a Purpose platform is a large-scale partnership that facilitates the adoption of new technologies and other innovations to transform the way we produce, distribute and consume our food.

With research, increased investment in new agricultural technologies, and integration of local and regional initiatives to strengthen food security, the platform works with more than 50 partner institutions and 1,000 leaders around the world to leverage emerging technologies to make our food systems more sustainable, inclusive and efficient.


Learn more on the impact of Innovation with a Purpose and contact us to see how you can get involved.

It is then possible to think bigger through a centralized marketplace or a digital auction mechanism that would benefit both buyers and sellers. It should be possible to set up a large-scale digital trading platform for producers and buyers; the reason this hasn’t happened outside of a few fairly niche examples is partly due to reluctance from producers and buyers. Buyers are reluctant to be transparent about the standards they set and producers to show how they meet them at the farm level.

But technology can also help. For example, algorithms can evaluate participant data and suggest potential alternative trading options. This could lead to smart contracts, whereby the buyer can source from a larger and more defined group of producers (whose production practices and results meet desired standards). The producer can access a digital trading environment and identify the right buyers.

Transparency is essential, however, as products should be clearly categorized and labeled according to the standards they meet for different types of buyers and use cases and for each international export market.

Consumers tend to focus their frustrations on supermarkets and restaurants, which are the most visible sources of waste. But it is those who are further upstream in the production process who have to do the most to put their house in order. Activists will raise awareness about this and demand greater accountability from governments and corporations. This is a critical moment for the agricultural sector. He has a shrinking window of opportunity to make proactive changes to reduce waste before he has to.

Lana T. Arthur