Farm waste – supermarkets’ role

Damning new report from FeedBack

Summary

This report examines the systemic role that supermarkets play in the overproduction and subsequent waste of food on UK Farms. Food waste represents an ecological catastrophe of staggering proportion: food production is the single greatest environmental impact humans have on the

planet, and wasted food, if it were a country, would rank as the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the US (FAO, 2013).

Food waste begins at the first stage in the supply chain: on the farm. While the exact scale of food waste on farms has not been systematically quantified, available research indicates that it is widespread and costly. WRAP’s most recent research suggests that a conservative estimate of farm level food waste is 2.5 million tonnes, representing a lost produce value of £0.8 billion (The Grocer, 2017).

Our research and investigations in supply chains, both in the UK and around the world, have consistently shown that supermarkets’ business practices drive waste. Trading practices, including order cancellations, last minute changes to forecasts, retrospective changes to supply agreements and the use of cosmetic specifications to reject produce, all cause food to be wasted. Some of these trading practices may be considered ‘unfair’, that is to say, they deviate from commercial good conduct and good faith (European Commission, 2016).

Produce rejected for cosmetic reasons, such as being the wrong shape, size or colour, was the biggest reason for food waste identified by farmers in this research. Supermarket contract practices were also identified as a major cause of waste. Due to natural uncontrollable factors like weather and pests, farmers cannot control the final quantities they produce. To avoid risking the loss of contracts, farmers must meet buyers’ orders in full – to guarantee this, they must overproduce. The inflexibility of supermarket contracts has normalised overproduction and the resulting waste.

This report draws on Feedback’s extensive research into supply chain food waste, our experience with farmers established through our Gleaning Network and a survey conducted with UK farmers in 2015.

This report reveals the key role supermarkets play in causing food waste on farms, transferring risks and costs to farmers in ways that often endanger their livelihoods. It highlights a dangerous power imbalance in the food system: a concentration of power among large retailers that allows them to burden farmers with both food waste and the associated costs. Supermarkets have over 85% of the market share of grocery stores in Great Britain (McKevitt, 2017). The farmers we surveyed said that as a result of this market concentration they had fewer outlets for lower grade and surplus produce.

This report highlights one of the ways in which our current food system is not working, and the urgent need to move toward food supply chains that are fair, discourage overproduction, and work within planetary boundaries.

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