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Farmers dispose of seven billion meals a year in waste

Farmers are burning surplus produce as a shortage of workers means they cannot make a profit on food left in fields, a new report has found.

Chris Molyneux, a kale farmer from Lancashire, says the cost of living crisis changing people’s eating habits may be contributing to surplus produce this year CREDIT: PETER POWELL

Almost seven billion meals worth of food goes to waste every year, much of it left to rot in fields, turned into energy or burned, WWF researchers found.

Food waste from farms is not counted in official statistics, despite accounting for around 25 per cent of the national total, and around 10 per cent of the overall greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector.

Aesthetic or size demands for fruit and vegetables, labour shortages and supermarkets changing their orders at the last minute are among the main reasons food is rejected, the report said.

Meanwhile, some £750 million of Government subsidies encourage the use of anaerobic digestion plants, which turn surplus food and other waste into biogas.

In total, approximately seven per cent of the food produced in the UK is wasted before it leaves the farm, but there is little tracking of exactly how much waste is produced and where it goes.

'Unfathomable millions of tonnes of food is going to waste'

"At a time when people up and down the country are struggling to put food on the table it is unfathomable that millions of tonnes of food is going to waste on UK farms each year," said Kate Norgrove from WWF.

"This hidden crisis shows why we need urgent action to fix our broken food system."

Brexit has exacerbated labour shortages, and the National Farmers Union has warned of a significant reduction in the 2022 harvest because of a lack of workers, with some 40 per cent of farmers reporting crop losses as a result in a recent survey.

WWF has suggested that consumers can help reduce food waste by varying diets to include crops better suited to the land, being less picky about how food looks, and reducing meat in our diets.

The report also suggests directing some of the £750 million in subsidies for anaerobic digestion towards projects that collect and redistribute surplus food.

Chris Molyneux, a kale farmer based in Lancashire who supplies high-end supermarkets and restaurants, said he was seeing increasing amounts of surplus this year, which he attributed to the cost of living crisis changing people’s eating habits.

"We're just trying to supply the market, and we're trying to guess what's going to happen and nature will change," he said.

Mr Molyneux has recently started opening his farm to volunteers who pick up leftover crops and redistribute them, in a practice known as gleaning.

It was a common practice from biblical times until the end of the second world war, but has risen again in recent years amid rising costs and environmental concern.

But Mr Molyneux said unpredictable weather patterns exacerbated by climate change make it harder to avoid surplus in some years and deficit in others.

"You’re dealing with nature, it's a really complicated thing," he said.

3m tonnes of farm waste not counted in official statistics

British homes and businesses throw away 9.5 million tonnes of food every year, according to official statistics.

But the three million tonnes of farm waste is not counted in official statistics, and therefore not included in the Government’s pledge to reduce food waste 20 per cent by 2025.

WWF says enabling farmers to better track and report their food waste will help to start tackling the problem. The report also calls for farming subsidies to incentivise reductions in food waste.

"We recognise the size of the problem that this new estimate clearly highlights, and welcome the ambition to support more farms introducing a target-measure-act approach to food waste," said Will Mcmanus from the waste management charity WRAP, which is funded by the Government.

"Not only is this an issue for the environment, but as we have shown in our work this is a sizeable and straightforward way to avoid costly losses on farm and ensure more food feeds more people.

"Our calculations show a 20 per cent potential increase in profits for UK farms through minimising food surplus and waste."

A spokesman for the Deparment for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: "The UK is a global leader in tackling food waste from farm to fork, with total levels falling by 480,000 tonnes between 2015 and 2018.

"It’s vital we go further though, and that’s why we support Courtauld Commitment 2030 – which aims to cut both emissions and food waste by 50 per cent. We have recently consulted on mandatory food waste reporting for businesses and are committed to introducing new schemes to incentivise more sustainable farming practices."


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