If the grower can’t profit from efforts to reduce food waste, the effort won’t happen.
That’s one observation from a new 39-page report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service in late January.
USDA estimates for fruits and vegetables in the North American supply chain reveal 30% of all fresh produce waste occurs at the farm level, 6% in post-harvest handling, 3% in processing and packaging, 18% in retail distribution, and 42% at the consumer level.
Farm-level food loss is influenced by:
- Price volatility in the marketplace;
- Labor constraints;
- Supply chain factors;
- Grades and standards;
- Consumer preferences; and
- Policies that unintentionally exacerbate food loss.
Prices below the cost of production provide no incentive for growers to harvest surplus product, and when prices are high, growers send more lower-quality produce to the market, which also could result in food loss at the wholesale or retail level, according to the report.
Quality and appearance standards can lead to food loss, according to the study.
“Growers, shippers and retailers make decisions about what and when to cull based on perceived consumer preferences; if any of these supply chain stages anticipate a buyer will not accept their produce, the produce will not be harvested or advanced through the supply chain,” according to the study.
Restrictions on gleaning and marketing order regulations also can lead to increased food loss.
“Once the effects, incentives and competing goals are considered together, one can begin to understand how to balance resources devoted to reducing food loss alongside other goals, such as maintaining farm profitability,” according to the study.
Attempts to cut food waste don’t happen in a vacuum.
“If reducing food loss takes away resources devoted to farm profitability, for example, it is unlikely that any grower would choose to participate,” according to the study. “However, if reducing food loss is considered alongside more traditional goals like improving farm income, industry adoption of food loss initiatives may be more likely.”
The report noted emerging retail markets and opportunities that can alleviate food loss and improve growers’ income, such as consumer interest in “ugly/imperfect” produce.
“As the conditions for food loss are multifaceted, so, too, are the strategies that alleviate that loss and improve grower welfare,” according to the study. “To be successful, efforts to mitigate food loss by recovering or recycling food must have viable markets and demonstrate their economic value to growers.”