Today, an estimated one-third of all the food produced in the US and intended for human consumption goes to waste. That’s roughly 1.4 billion tons of fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, seafood, and grains that either never leave the farm, get lost or spoiled during distribution, or are thrown away in hotels, grocery stores, restaurants, schools, or home kitchens. Making matters worse, this food is being wasted when one in 10 American households are food insecure.
But wasted food isn't just a social or humanitarian concern—it's an environmental one. Food loss and waste also worsen the climate crisis. When food is discarded, we also waste all the energy and resources used in producing, processing, transporting, preparing, and storing that food. And if food goes to the landfill and rots, it further produces methane—a heat-trapping greenhouse gas even more potent than carbon dioxide. Across the entire supply chain from farm to disposal, the EPA estimates that US food loss and waste is responsible for the equivalent of the annual emissions of 42 coal-fired power plants.
Fighting food waste on farms
The grower’s perspective
About 16% of US food waste occurs on farms—which means that fresh food is left behind right at its source, often due to strict cosmetic specifications from buyers, high costs to growers to return to the fields, and poor coordination between the two groups. This food loss is certainly not the desired outcome. “Growing a crop is the blending of a grower’s passion, instinct, some art, and a lot of science, all in collaboration with Mother Nature,” said one producer with Coastline Family Farms. “We want each head of romaine lettuce or bunch of broccoli to end up on someone’s plate.”
To target and help prevent food waste at the start of the supply chain, WWF supported seven growers and companies to assess the amount of food left behind in their fields and operations during the 2021 growing season, using the metric Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops Food Loss Metric tool. The food loss metric is a tool for growers to measure how much loss they have in their fields and their general operation. The tool also requires growers to categorize their measurements into inedible, edible, and marketable loss so that they can better understand the potential left in their fields or opportunities to utilize more of what’s left behind. We listened to growers’ perspectives, helped them measure their unsold and unharvested produce, and discussed the benefits of using this tool into the future and how buyers could support them to reduce on-farm loss. The project mainly provided support to growers in using the metric tool more effectively and understanding the value it can bring to their operations.
Growers said that in-field measurement helped them better document, track, and communicate data about their operations. They learned how much—and why—product was left in the field and gained insights into how much of their loss was edible and marketable.
The value of measuring losses
“[The product that was measured is] perfectly fine to eat but has scars on it. Because it’s blemished, many consumers would reject it, but would be good for a local markets or restaurants.”
Calavo Mexico, Hawaii, and California papaya, tomato, avocado
“We need to change the dialogue, up and down the supply chain, to identify how real collaboration can overcome the systemic bias that has built up over time. Field-level data and knowledge sharing with trading partners would allow us to have a meaningful discussion and optimize the harvest of every consumable item with a fair return for the grower.”
Coastline Family Farms California and Arizona lettuce, romaine heart, green onion, leaf lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, celery, and other mixed vegetables
“Data is powerful. 100%. If someone gave me field data and I'm looking at it, there’s a lot I can fix and can’t fix as a farmer. It requires collaboration from the grower, shipper, etc. This was a tough year, but to me, we need to continue to be better. On my side, every seed out there should be perfect, every transplant should be perfect, etc. We need to be spot on. I want to make sure my crop is number one.”
Dole Fresh Vegetables (a division of Dole Food Company, Inc.) California and Arizona, Mexico and regional production in Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio, Texas and Nevada artichoke, iceberg lettuce, broccoli, romaine lettuce, celery, leaf lettuce, spinach, cauliflower, cabbage, and other mixed vegetables
“If you take the time to look at why crops are inedible or edible, then you can take that and really push it through the tool, use it as a launching pad... for more granular data collection.”
“With agriculture being one of the top 10 largest industries in the world, it is vital for us to continue searching for new ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle our resources across the supply chain. That’s why collaborative initiatives like the No Food Left Behind Project are major for us to combine expertise and better measure opportunities for improvement across our operations.”
Lipman Family Farms California, Virginia, South Carolina, Florida tomato, pepper, cucumber, eggplant, squash, green bean, watermelon
“At Campbell, we are accelerating efforts to reduce waste on the farms where our ingredients are grown and across our value chain. Participating in this pilot provided us with valuable insights into the very high crop utilization rate achieved by our processing tomato supplier E&H Farms.”
Ryan Vroegindewey, Ph.D. l Senior Manager, Sustainable Agriculture California processing tomato
Working toward better policies
Measuring how much fresh produce is left unharvested is an extremely valuable tool not only to mitigate risk but also to identify and develop opportunities to repurpose produce (value-add processing) or re-direct to other markets including food banks.
But growers need further support from buyers and policy measures to create these potential sales channels and redirect food to where it’s needed, which will allow them to profitably harvest the edible produce that’s left behind in their fields. Reducing on-farm loss should be a priority of the whole supply chain, and not just the growers and producers, so that the necessary support and incentives can be put into place for growers to then start measuring and using all of what was planted and raised to the point of harvest.
At a policy level, buyers and policymakers can also make it easier for farmers to donate surplus food, access compost, and feed food scraps to animals by signing on to the Food Waste Action Plan. The plan was developed by WWF and other leading NGOs to accelerate progress on the US’s commitment to halve food loss and waste by 2030—while also working to reduce the food system’s inefficiencies and greenhouse gas emissions. One of the key proposals to emerge from the action plan is the Zero Food Waste Act, which aims to provide infrastructure grants for communities to compost, rescue, and divert more of what farmers grow from ending up in the trash.
Growers are again leading the way and ready to make shifts to their operations that can help their bottom line, in terms of creating alternative channels to move product, and reduce the resources used to grow food that too often is left behind. Now is the time for the rest of the supply chain, and policymakers to match the work already underway on farms.
Food systems are one of the most pressing sustainability issues of our generation posing as a threat to climate and nature, but they also have a chance to be part of the solution. Ensuring that more food is harvested and eaten by humans is low-hanging fruit that could be a win-win-win for the food supply chain, people, and the planet.
World Wildlife Fund Inc. is a nonprofit, tax-exempt charitable organization (tax ID number 52-1693387) under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Donations are tax-deductible as allowed by law.