Andrew Opie opinion quote

The Grocer’s campaign on food waste has provided welcome impetus to the challenge of reducing food waste. There is a lot more to do to meet one of the key targets in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, but the commitment is there across the chain and with the right focus and support we can make huge progress.

One area where we can and need to do more is cutting food waste in primary production, on farm and in processing. It has to be given the priority it warrants. Despite the campaign by The Grocer and others, the public debate on food waste has become focused in recent years on one issue: redistribution of surplus food by retailers and manufacturers. It is one that every responsible business should be addressing. However, we also need to make more progress towards the ultimate goal of reducing food waste. I believe increased evidence and insight into how food is wasted in primary production will go a long way to tackle one of the biggest contributors.

We don’t even know how much food is wasted pre-farmgate, nor how different business decisions influence it. That is why we held a round table in 2016 with Wrap, NFU and AHDB to start the process of fully understanding the scale of the problem and begin a constructive dialogue on what is driving it. Using expertise across the sectors we can find practical solutions and give it the same emphasis in the Courtauld initiative, which has been so successful in other parts of the chain.

The first priority is to establish exactly how much waste there is. For the first time we will have the evidence of why we need to be more ambitious and a baseline to assess our progress. This work, led by Wrap, is advancing and we will see more information shortly. This will ultimately ensure pre-farmgate waste receives the same scrutiny under Courtauld as other areas.

Delivering progress will rely on a better understanding of what drives waste, what needs to change to prevent it, and companies adopting new practices and embedding them in their businesses. A number of reasons have been cited, from poor forecasting by retailers, using excessively tight specifications, to over-producing to avoid shortfalls, but in future we can swap speculation for evidence and focus on what will actually make a difference. A number of projects looking at fresh produce are already under way through Courtauld 2025 and lessons learned from these studies will be applied more widely.

We need to build on existing initiatives, where retailers are already working with farmers to tackle food waste and losses such as carcase balancing and using the whole crop. The evidence will give us a sharper focus on where we can do more to make the most impact and demonstrate the benefits of doing so to everyone along the chain. More evidence will also make the whole process more transparent and challenging.

Accurate data and greater insight will provide a step change in tackling waste in primary production. Not only will it make our supply chains more sustainable, it will drive further efficiency and strengthen UK production.

Andrew Opie is director of food policy at the BRC