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Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

A Free Tool is Bringing Farmers and Buyers Together to Eliminate Food Waste

A person holding a box of onions — food waste

(Image: Carl Tronders/Unsplash) 

An estimated 2.5 billion tons of food goes uneaten every year, and a sizable portion of that waste never leaves the farm, according to research from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). About 15 percent of the food wasted globally is lost during and around harvest. That’s 1.2 billion tons of food. A new, free tool from WWF aims to reduce that number, which could go a long way toward addressing food insecurity and lessening environmental ramifications. 

“We care about shrinking the footprint of food [and] using more of what is already being produced,” Alex Nichols-Vinueza, the director of food loss and waste at WWF, told TriplePundit. “We have this overproduction today where almost 40 percent of what we produce goes to waste — and all of the associated impacts around biodiversity loss, conversion [to farmland], water use, greenhouse gas emissions that come with it.”

New tool empowers partnership between growers and buyers

WWF’s Global Farm Loss Tool doesn’t just measure waste, it breaks it down into categories to help growers see just how much food they're losing and where they're losing it, Nichols-Vinueza explained. Since growers can’t solve the problem on their own, that categorization helps growers and buyers work together to get more food out of the field and onto consumers’ plates.

“[It’s] meant for growers to work with buyers, to work with partners, to then come up with these solutions,” he said. “We've done the research where just growers go out into the field and measure but … they can't just take action on their own.” 

Buyers, brands and retailers benefit by reducing the environmental impacts and emissions throughout their supply chains. 

Alex Nichols-Winuesa
Alex Nichols-Vinueza, director of food loss and waste at the World Wildlife Fund. (Image courtesy of WWF.) 

Solutions are customized for the cause

The tool breaks waste down into marketable, edible and spoilage categories. Each type of loss happens for a different reason and necessitates a different set of solutions. Marketable loss includes fruits and vegetables left in field because of a lack of interested buyers, inclement weather that disrupted the harvest, a shortage of laborers available to complete the harvest, and produce missed by pickers, combines or other machinery, Nichols-Vinueza said.

The edible category consists of foods that are left in field because consumers are likely to reject fruits and vegetables that are scarred, misshapen or the wrong size. While there’s always the hope that consumers will learn to accept edible fruits and vegetables that are not aesthetically perfect, that process can take time to scale up. But there are other solutions, such as selling that produce to cafeterias or food service companies. For example, strawberries that are too small can be distributed to cafeterias, where they can be cut up and served in fruit salads or parfaits without their size being noticeable to consumers, Nichols-Vinueza said.

Additionally, the tool focuses on solutions like upcycling food that would otherwise be wasted surplus and creating new processed foods, he explained.

As far as spoilage is concerned, there are plenty of options outside of sending it to a landfill. It can be composted and used as fertilizer, which could reduce the need for fertilizers by 30 percent and offset their rising cost, Nichols-Vinueza said. And spoiled fruits can be processed for their sugars.

“We're really positioning this [tool] as a piece of that regenerative transition because if you go back to the origins of regenerative agriculture, nothing in nature and nothing in those systems was wasted,” he said. “We're really trying to make sure that, as part of that overall more circular and regenerative system, we're bringing a focus to using more of what we grow. Obviously to feed people first, but then to offset some of our production costs.” 

Labor market limitations

Fruits and vegetables are very labor intensive to harvest and produce. The agricultural labor market is limited and expensive, often leaving farms without enough labor, Nichols-Vinueza said.  

“We want to get more of what we produce to people, so we're really focused on how do we find an economically profitable way for growers to be able to justify … labor,” he said. “We often get [asked] when we're at events and talking about the work we do on farm, ‘Well why don't you just donate the food?’ And I think every grower would love to see all of their products eaten. It breaks their heart to not be able to use all this food after all the work that went into producing it.”

But both the cost and shortage of labor mean it’s often more economically feasible for growers to leave marketable produce in field, even if it could be sold or donated. Unfortunately, the agricultural labor market is unlikely to improve in the U.S. — especially considering growing anti-immigrant sentiment. This presents a significant challenge to growers who hope to significantly reduce waste.

An example in action

Since the Global Farm Loss Tool is new, evidence is still limited. However, one grower who has used the tool worked with a buyer to reduce waste to an astonishing 0.6 percent by offering their product at a variety of qualities and price points.

“They've got their top-grade fresh apples,” Nichols-Vinueza said. “They've got their bagged apples for a little bit more of a discount. They've got bins of apples if you want to create sauces and pies. And they've got their imperfect line for more of a discount. They've really gone through and, with the partnership with the buyer, established these different products. And that's the end result. They've really been able to reduce a significant amount of their waste.”

Although it will take a while to see more results, it’s a promising example of what the industry can achieve with the right tools and dedication to eliminating waste on the farm. 

Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of Baja California Sur, México. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.

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