World Wildlife Fund Sustainability Works

workers harvest tomatoes on a farm in California

Using What We Grow: 5 approaches to on-farm food loss

  • Date: 25 January 2021
  • Author: Leigh Prezkop, Food Loss and Waste Specialist, WWF

Nearly 10 million tons of food grown on farms never leaves the farmgate. This is startling considering as many as one in six Americans faces food insecurity and over 50 percent of our land base is used for agriculture. With the technology advancements we have seen in agriculture over the decades, from mechanical harvesting equipment to precision techniques, it seems possible that we could also improve forecasting and distribution to more fully use the surplus that we grow.

No Food Left Behind

The sudden demand shift at the onset of COVID-19—as restaurants and hospitality shuttered and retail and food pantry demand grew—exposed the gaps and somewhat inflexible nature of existing supply chains, leaving tons of edible food on US farms without its intended market. By re-envisioning supply chains as more holistic systems, WWF wants to design our food system to prevent loss and waste and to have positive impacts for nature and people. Through our No Food Left Behind series, we aim to better understand the drivers of loss on farms, such as cosmetic standards, inflexible contract systems, and labor shortages, and we seek to shape innovative solutions with the help of every stakeholder, from farm to grocery store.

A Cross-Sector Virtual Convening

In the spring of 2020, WWF’s Food Waste team facilitated a unique event that brought together a variety of key parties from along the produce supply chain. Ultimately, we sought to develop a set of systems-based interventions to tackle food loss rather than focusing on individual supply chain segments. By the end of the event, the group had created five potential holistic approaches. Below is an overview, and you can read the full overview here.

  • Food Loss Measurement Tool Implementation and Amplification

Measurement is often the first step in unlocking new opportunities around waste reduction, financial gain, and food utilization. Several measurement tools and metrics for growers exist in the US today—the SISC Food Loss Metric is the most comprehensive for horticultural crops. This approach would support a cohort of growers in using this metric to establish a baseline of data and drive new pathways for surplus, such as val­ue-add processing, new channels, or markets such as e-commerce and whole crop contracting, improved forecasting for future plantings, and reducing total planted crops to lower grower inputs.

  • Whole Crop Contracts

Retailers in the US tend to purchase based on projected demand and strict cosmetic specifications, none of which are designed to align with a grower’s total supply. By offering growers whole crop contracts (a contract that ensures absorption of surplus and edible imperfect crop by the buyer), retailers would likely find ways to use more of the total available produce. This would help to reduce on-farm loss and increase flexibility for growers from season to season. As flexibility and trust grow between the two, retailers can incorporate on-farm loss metrics into their forecasts and better determine quantities to offer in-store versus other channels such as e-commerce. Tesco in the UK has used a similar system for some time that has created mutual benefit for both buyer and producer.

  • Maximize Utilization of Imperfect and Surplus Produce Through E-Commerce

As eating habits have shifted drastically, e-commerce has risen exponentially and can be a major new channel for surplus product, which could benefit both farmers and retailers. A key aspect of this strategy could broaden produce specifications to include more ‘imperfect’ or ‘seconds’ product, which would use more of what is grown while meeting consumer demand for seasonal produce and increasing desire to fight loss and waste.

  • Food Loss Database

To create better visibility and facilitate predictive forecasting, a comprehensive food loss database connecting producers and retailers can be built, aggregating existing platforms and improving the usability of grower data. This could also provide an anonymous way for farmers to analyze their losses and benchmark against others, and help inform future planting, purchasing, sales, and recovery decisions. Retailers would benefit by understanding the landscape for improved seasonal and local ordering and provide the data needed for better purchasing decisions that could limit waste in their supply chains.

  • Mapping Food Loss and Waste Hotspots Through the Cold Chain

Although WWF and several universities (including Santa Clara University and North Carolina University) have studied post-harvest loss and on-farm surplus, there is still very little data on loss and waste across the cold chain. This intervention outlines how to close this data gap in the cold chain and improve best practices for cold storage and logistics com­panies.

Learn more about each of these approaches.

Dive into our No Food Left Behind series.