Professor Leon Terry, Director of Agrifood at Cranfield University, comments on the war on food waste in the fruit and vegetable supply chain.

While the trolley loads of parsnips in last week’s Hugh’s War on Waste were startling to many consumers, the loss of food through the fruit and vegetable supply chain is more complex than it first appears.

For one thing, the amount of food wasted at each stage of the supply chain varies greatly depending on the type of product and time of year. For example, research I have undertaken showed that only 1% of strawberries are lost at grading, while 9-20% of onions can be lost at this stage. However, in the retail environment the tables turn: up to 4% of strawberries are wasted (higher than most other fresh produce), while less than 1% of onions are lost (lower than most other produce). There are lots of factors at play here; like how strawberries and some other produce is picked by hand on farms, while onions are harvested mechanically and then sorted. Later in the chain, onions keep better than strawberries, and require less packaging at the point of sale.

No matter what stage food is lost at – from the field through storage, sale, and in the home – all loss is economically and environmentally concerning. However, the industry has already been making significant investments in improvements to reduce these losses all through the supply chain. Further investment in the science, technology, and better management of produce will make a real difference to the food waste problem.

Our research also shows that many growers usually grow excess produce to ensure that their orders can always be supplied in time and in full. Depending on conditions and yield, this may have an influence on crop utilisation and waste. Indeed, excess volume may even be in the commercial interest for companies as they are able to meet the orders for a number of different types of food business.

However, it is true that retailer specifications for fruit and vegetables are principally governed by visual appearance. This is even true for products for which the skin is not eaten and has no effect of taste, flavour or nutritional content. Consumer research is required to evaluate whether attitudes might be changed or whether specifications have been created by a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’.  That is, if consumers are continually exposed to produce which is increasingly aesthetically perfect then this is what they will increasingly demand.

When you purchase a cosmetically pleasing fruit, did you know that you are usually making your choice from different quality tiers? Government funded research undertaken here at Cranfield looked at the viability of another, lower, quality tier: the appetite for Hugh’s ‘wonky’ veg. Through our work, we found that retailers and suppliers did not think a fourth lower-tier would be financially viable. Indeed, it could even reduce margins for growers, which are already dropping as we demand cheaper fruit and vegetables.

If consumers do have an appetite for this produce, they have to demonstrate this to the industry. It has been tried before, for example The Sun newspaper’s “wonky veg pledge” in 2011.  Time will tell if there really is scope for this behavioural change in the UK.

Agrifood at Cranfield

Agrifood has been a key strategic theme at Cranfield University for over 40 years. We have internationally recognised expertise across both domestic and international food supply chains from primary food production, inputs - soil, plants and water, through to point of sale, waste reduction and applied informatics.

Students work closely with our partners in industry, Government or the NGO sector. We understand our clients’ challenges because more than 80% of the University’s business comes from sources other than Government. Most of our academic staff have spent considerable portions of their career in industry or Government, and are especially solution-oriented. We delight in assembling pan-University teams of experts from across our skill sets, often in collaboration with other Universities, and consultants, to meet challenges that fall outside the conventional academic disciplines.