While the nation struggles through the cost of living crisis, farmers are being left with no choice but to burn excess crops.
It should be a time of abundance. On farms up and down Britain, workers should be harvesting potatoes, cabbages, carrots, cauliflowers, kale and a whole host of other autumn crops. And, for many, that is what’s happening – as it has for generations.
But, on others, the normal frenzy of harvest time has ground to a halt. Instead, thousands of tons of food is being left to rot, or, in some cases, burnt, as farmers contend with a critical shortage of pickers.
It is a pressing issue to solve during a cost of living crisis, when an increasing number of people are turning to food banks to survive. And yet in their Hidden Waste report, published last weekend, WWF researchers found that almost seven billion meals worth of food goes to waste every year, much of it left unpicked on farms.
The reasons for this chronic waste are many: supermarkets rejecting “ugly” fruit and vegetables; the same chains changing their minds on how much produce they need; and general overproduction by farmers nervous about letting down customers.
But the most infuriating factor – particularly at the current time, with the Manston asylum processing centre, in Kent, overwhelmed with thousands of migrants – is the fact that there is simply no one to pick the crops. While Brexit plays a role in such labour shortages, so does the war in Ukraine and the global worker shortage.
But for Patrick Holden, founder of the Sustainable Food Trust, the central problem is the low value society places on the work of pickers. Britons simply don’t want to do the job. A government recruitment campaign for British pickers in 2020, Pick for Britain, was scrapped due to low take-up, which, in turn, was blamed on the paltry wages on offer.
But Holden believes at the heart of the issue is a total disconnect across society with the food we buy and how it is produced. “The problem today is that we live in a society where almost everyone is completely disconnected from the story behind their food. They’ve no idea where their food comes from,” says Holden.
His 50 tons of carrots, grown on 10 acres in west Wales, used to be weeded by local school children during the holidays. “It connected them with the land, it was cultural and it kept the money here, rather than exporting it to eastern Europe,” he says.
He would be in favour of a National Service-style Woofing scheme that would enable young people to work the land. (The word “woofing” derives from the WWOOF, a scheme that arranges for volunteers to work weekends on organic farms.) He cites the example of Lady Balfour, the founder of the Soil Association, who worked as a land girl during the First World War, for what a connection with the land can inspire in the individual.
“I think physical work on the land is what we’ve been denied as a culture, quite frankly,” he says. “We used to know that working physically in the fields was glorious. Now it’s, ‘Oh it’s the tyranny of physical labour. Thank God we’ve escaped from that and we can sit behind a computer’.” Collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields once they have been commercially harvested is a practice that goes back to the Bible.
Known as gleaning, it is being revived by the campaign group Feedback, which has set up a Gleaning Network – a scheme that encourages communities to salvage surplus food left on farms; food which can then be redistributed within their local area. Since 2012, it claims such networks have saved hundreds of tons of food from being wasted on farms for people in food poverty.
But Feedback is the first to admit that gleaning is not a long-term solution. “Our priority must always be designing the food waste out of the system in the first place,” says Martin Bowman, senior policy and campaigns manager at Feedback. One reform the group wants is for the reporting of food waste in the agriculture industry to become mandatory, a change that would break the current deadlock that means farmers are too frightened to speak out about their food waste, for fear they will be perceived as criticising their buyers.
“One [farmer] spoke to us and said they were wasting a quarter of their carrots for mainly cosmetic reasons from supermarkets.”
Bowman thinks transparency about the problem will help shine a light on it. “It will raise pressure on supermarkets to change policies, as well as unlock more government support, which is currently focused on waste in other sectors.”
Holden agrees. “Yes, it’s immoral that we are wasting food, but we need to go deeper than that: unsustainable farming practices, producing enormous mountains of crops, for which there’s sometimes a market and sometimes not.”
Diversifying away from the strictures of the supermarkets towards veg boxes (boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables, often locally grown and organic, delivered directly to customers) has proved successful in managing food waste for many farmers.
Drive down into west Cornwall where most of our cauliflowers are grown in winter and you will drive past field after field where a tractor hasn’t even gone through the gate because, says Riverford Organic Founder, Guy Singh-Watson: “The market hasn’t wanted them at that time, or they’re too big or have minor blemishes.” By contrast he says, at Riverford’s network of farms supplying their veg boxes: “Generally, when we finish a field of cauliflowers it’s just stumps.”
The difference in outcomes for each cauliflower crop is all down to the question of choice.
Supermarkets react to our demands, whereas your veg box will deliver you a glut. The latter is less wasteful, but is dependent on consumers being more flexible with what they receive.
“That you can have whatever you want when you want it. That manifests as us wanting the same range of vegetables 365 days of the year, regardless of whether there’s snow outside. Rather than buying what’s available and ready to eat,” says Singh-Watson.
It is mild at the moment, which means cauliflowers have been coming on strong, so there will be more cauliflowers in the boxes than leeks. When there’s a cold snap, there will be more leeks and less cauliflower.
“You do have to be prepared to cook around the content of the box and that does not suit everybody. It requires skills in the kitchen and some flexibility in terms of what you’re happy to cook tonight,” says Singh-Watson.
He adds: “An economist might say the customer is ‘suffering a loss in utility’ by not having exactly what they want that day, but I’d say we need to be more flexible in what we’re willing to eat.”
Much of the waste that takes place occurs on large-scale monocrop farms where intensive practices keep prices down. Could reducing the scale of production help reduce waste?
For Calixta Killandar, founder of 56-acre Flourish, Cambs, where they grow more than 800 varieties, shortening the supply chain and going direct to restaurants has helped reduce the waste that other farmers struggle with.
Having established a strong premium business to top London restaurants like Brat, she has now opened an on-site farm shop to sell their second-quality produce, such as wonky carrots and nibbled salad leaves.
“We’re very lucky that our restaurant customers understand what we do and pay for it,” she says. “Opening a farm shop after that has been important to supply the local community at a very reasonable price, because I don’t have to pay for transport and logistics.”
Our role as consumers is more important than we might think.