cabbage crop growing in field vegetables

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A ‘significant’ amount of the figure was caused by supermarket quality requirements, despite the wonky veg trend

A “staggering” £650m worth of food is being wasted every year in the UK before it leaves the farm gate, according to a major new report by Wrap, leading to new calls for supermarkets to relax cosmetic standards.

The study, which Wrap said was the most detailed investigation ever into primary production waste, found the total of UK food surplus and waste in primary production stood at 3.6 million tonnes per year, or 7.2% of production, with an overall market value of £1.2bn.

Wrap said food waste accounted for 1.6 million tonnes of the total figure, or around 3% of production. It said a “significant” amount of the figure was caused by supermarket quality requirements - influenced by consumer preferences, despite the trend towards so-called ‘wonky’ vegetables.

The rest of the figure includes food not sold for human consumption as intended, but instead used as livestock feed, redistributed to charities, or used in bio-based materials such as colourants.

Wrap found that amounted to an estimated two million tonnes per a year, or 4% of production with a market value of more than £500m.

The figures, based on 2017 data, found huge differences in the proportion of different products being wasted on farms.

Of the top 20 foods, milk had the highest total production by weight at nearly 15 million tonnes. The study identified 116,000 tonnes of milk waste, representing 0.8% of total production.

For lettuces, the percentage of waste was nearly a quarter of total production (104,000 tonnes).

Sugar beet, potatoes and carrots made up more than half of the overall waste by weight, found the study, with horticultural crops making up 54% of the total, cereals 30%, livestock 8% and milk a further 8%.

Wrap said it was working to acquire more data directly from producers to refine its findings and help direct future action.

It has also launched a new online resource for farmers and growers. The Food & Drink Surplus Network provides access to a broad range of markets and outlets for surplus food.

While pre-harvest factors such as variety selection, crop management and pest and disease incidence affected the figures, Wrap added that post-harvest factors such as fluctuations in supply and demand, product handling, storage conditions and failure to meet quality requirements were also key causes.

“This is the most detailed study of food surplus and waste in primary production undertaken for the UK, and a key finding has been the range of waste across all food categories,” said Wrap director Peter Maddox.

“This tells us is there is huge potential to reduce the amount of surplus and waste by promoting best practice, and that’s where our work is now focused. We want to increase redistribution of surplus food as has happened across the retail sector, and I am pleased this will now be much easier through the Food Surplus Network.”

The figure of food waste in the report equates to almost 80 times the amount of food redistributed last year by the UK’s biggest food waste charity, FareShare.

“Assuming two thirds of this could have been eaten, that’s enough to create over four-and-a-half billion meals for UK citizens each year - a staggering figure,” said FareShare director of food and network development Mark Varney.

“We hope that, by shining a light on the extent of the problem, this report will help open up a ‘new frontier’ in food waste prevention.”

Peter Andrews, head of sustainability at the BRC, said: “Retailers are working closely with their suppliers to minimise waste, for example by using more accurate prediction of demand, finding ways to use surplus production, and setting clear targets for future improvement.”

However, Martin Bowman, food waste expert from Feedback, said the figures strengthened the case for the Groceries Code Adjudicator to police primary production.

“Wrap’s new report reveals the massive scale of food waste on UK farms, at great cost to farmers and the environment,” he said. “The government urgently needs to fund detailed measurement of on-farm food waste, set targets to reduce it, and strengthen the Groceries Code Adjudicator to protect farmers from unfair trading practices. Farmers have repeatedly reported that they are forced to waste food because of supermarket policies - supermarkets should relax cosmetic standards on their core product ranges, pay farmers a fair price and stop incentivising systemic overproduction.”