Concerns over post-harvest losses of fresh produce prompted the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to initiate a study to measure losses in four crops in a total of four states in the USA in the 2017-2018 growing season. The results indicate that it may be possible to increase the availability of fruits and vegetables without increasing land, fertilizer and other resources by utilizing the surplus that is left in-field, as long as the price is right, standards are relaxed and market demand exists.
WWF worked with the Global Cold Chain Alliance (GCCA) and the University of California, Davis (UCDavis) on the four crops selected for study: fresh and processing tomatoes, fresh and processing peaches, processing potatoes, and leafy greens (Romaine lettuce). To provide an estimate of post-harvest losses, researchers gathered samples from 35 farms and 20 packing houses over the 2017-2018 growing season. Measurements for each crop included several farms in a single state, with a total of four states participating across the four crops. Given these parameters, the data collected are considered a snapshot in time which are a valuable addition to the growing base of information in this area. Qualitative data were collected through grower interviews.
Average losses from packing houses were smaller than on-farm losses as these were simply a further culling of produce that looked damaged, diseased or off spec. Losses at the packing house were highest for tomatoes.
Food loss on farms was affected by weather, labour and market conditions. Unseasonal weather or unpredictable weather events can lead to sudden and significant losses, and can also lead to changes in consumption patterns and hence demand. Insufficient, expensive or unpredictable labour supply can have an impact on losses. The market price combined with labour costs can determine the extent of product left unharvested in the field.
To translate these losses into environmental impacts, researchers carried out life cycle assessments to show the loss of resources, such as water and fertilizers, used in food production which goes to waste.
The results of the studies highlighted potential opportunities for improving utilization that could lead to economic benefits for growers, buyers and consumers and at the same time minimize waste of resources. Accommodating production and consumption trends during a time of changes in climate and food production will be increasingly difficult, but opportunities exist for bringing nutritious food surplus to market, including building capacity for both macro and regional value-added processing to deliver fruit and vegetable nutrients in a number of different products.
A summary of the WWF report No Food Left Behind. Part 1: Underutilized Produce Ripe for Alternative Markets is available here
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