Food loss and waste at farm-level

The rain outside has been relentless for the last 20 hours and is likely to go on well into the night, now accompanied by the groaning of the wind as we are passed by the eye of the storm. This is the after-effect of Cyclone Debbie which has coursed through North Queensland this week. Here in Brisbane flood alerts are in place, schools are closed, and people warned against unnecessary travel. I live on a hill, in an apartment, and have stayed inside all day. I know nothing of what is really going on out there, and the consequences of this weather on people, homes and livelihoods.

Yesterday I went to the farmer’s market in the city and noted the absence of three stalls that sell fruit and/or veg. I put this down to the cyclone, which has caused farming communities significant crop damage and losses. Today is usually the day I go to the community garden. We only planted seedlings a few weeks ago. Will any of these survive? In the grand scheme of things, our beds of salad plants and herbs are no significant loss, but it’s still food that would (and hopefully still will) be used to help sustain our community.

Our food system begins in the field. The first step in the journey to produce food for consumers is growing food. The links in the ‘farm to fork’ chain may be few (e.g. vegetables that you have grown yourself) or many (e.g. a highly-processed meat-based ready meal) but if this first step fails then, as consumers, we could go hungry. But, as farmers, much more is at stake.

Food wasted at farm-level is usually referred to as food loss. It is food that was originally intended for human consumption but does not make it that far due to natural disasters, disease, inefficiencies in infrastructure and logistics, and/or lack of knowledge, skills and technology. This is in comparison to food waste where food is consciously disposed of. Food loss and waste can occur pre- and post-harvest.

In developing countries, 40% of food loss/waste occurs at post-harvest and processing levels, compared to developed countries where the same amount of food is lost and wasted at retail and consumer levels. These losses early in the supply chain are traced back to financial, technical and managerial limitations and equates to lost incomes for small farmers and higher prices which penalise poor consumers.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) 2015 found that in developing countries the agriculture (which includes crops, livestock, fisheries and forestry) sector absorbs 22% of the economic impact caused by natural disasters. They recommend the need for more mainstream disaster risk reduction and resilience building, as well as the improved and systematic collection of data to better aid risk reduction. In comparison to the economic impact, humanitarian aid is small. More investment – not just in terms of money, but also specific training on everything from demand forecasting to marketing their product, and improved infrastructure, particularly in terms of refrigeration and storage is needed.

But the impact of food loss is not just experienced in developing countries. Supermarkets in the UK recently experienced a courgette shortage due to unusually cold and wet weather in Spain. Spanish growers also suffered with loss of lettuces, and other crops, and were unable to plant any more due to the weather. Food waste campaign groups such as Feedback and Love Food Hate Waste were quick with the message: buy seasonal produce and provided a glut of recipes with what to do with the elusive cauliflower.

Disease is also a significant contributor to food loss that can have just as wide-reaching consequences as natural disasters. The impacts of the foot and mouth crisis, which caused industry losses of more than £8 billion, in the UK in 2001 are still being felt by the British farming community, not least in the horrific memory of it. Lessons were learnt and farmer’s now have identification and tracking systems for their animals, contingency plans and advanced disease control technology. However, legislation regarding the disposal of food waste – particularly for use as animal feed – was introduced following the foot and mouth outbreak and campaigns like ‘The Pig Idea’ are calling for this to be changed in order to reduce the amount of food waste sent to landfill or for energy recovery.

In Queensland it seems Cyclone Debbie has brought mixed fortunes. Large losses in sugar cane are expected, although the extent of the loss cannot be seen until the June harvest. Farmers on the coast are expected to have experienced heavy losses, with those on the Whitsunday coast – an area considered north Australia’s food bowl – fearing entire crops lost and that it could be months before they’re able to grow again.  However, the heavy rain has been a blessing to many cattle producers and farmers in central Queensland following serious drought. Current predictions exceed $1 billion in damages, with fruit and vegetable farmers seeing between $100,000 and $2 million in individual losses. Natural disasters in Queensland are not uncommon and disaster resilience planning for agriculture is continuously being improved. Support and advice is on hand from the government, and other independent bodies, and volunteer agencies are also on hand to help with clean ups. How this event impacts consumers over the coming weeks and months remains to be seen.




Composting and waste reduction in the UK and Australia

Since moving to Australia I have taken on a couple of voluntary roles at a nearby community centre and garden run by the Australian Red Cross. One is as a community garden volunteer which, as well as general garden activities, includes planning and coordinating the garden and welcoming visitors and encouraging them to participate. The garden is also home to one of the community composting sites managed by Brisbane City Council and as a composting site volunteer I am responsible for its upkeep. I am loving my volunteer work. I have learnt so much more about gardening in such a short time, and I am able to put my composting knowledge into practice on a greater scale. But that brings me to my shortcomings: I’m in a new place with a very different climate, different potential pests, different legislation and initiatives with regard to waste reduction, and the use of different schools of thought about composting.

So I have asked myself the following questions:

How fast does the compost process take given higher temperatures?

Queensland has a sub-tropical climate and although has four seasons, like in the UK, winter here is comparable to a British summer. Using a cold composting method which requires little management and materials are added as and when, decomposition can take 6 to 12 months in the UK. At the community composting site here in Brisbane decomposition has taken approximately 4 months. This is not necessarily comparable as the bins receive a greater quantity of waste than a home composting bin. However, it does suggest that the process is significantly quicker.

What about snakes?

An inevitable question, of course, but interestingly it is not a subject that has arisen as yet at the composting site. I have been warned of spiders when pruning (‘if you see a spider, back off’), but not snakes! However, the first step for avoiding snakes in gardens and compost bins is to make them unattractive to things like rats which, as a food source, attract snakes. So, the rules are the same as in the UK: as with any pest, keep your bin/heap covered, attend to it regularly, avoid raw meat, cover food scraps with other materials, and place the bin on a fine layer of mesh.

35Popularity of worm farms?

I have noticed since being here that worm farms (wormeries) seem particularly popular, including the ‘worm swag’ as pictured. The advantages of these and compost tumblers (of which we have two in the community garden) are that they help avoid problems with pests due to being enclosed. Worm farms are also really good for apartment living given their size, enclosed nature, and the small quantity of worm castings that are produced. In comparison, I have not yet come across composting methods like the HotBin, Green Johanna and Green Cone that exist in the UK and enable people to compost things like cooked food waste that cannot go in a conventional compost bin.

preventionWaste reduction legislation – nationally and state-wide

UK waste reduction legislation is, at the moment, directed by the EU Waste Framework Directive. The Waste (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2012 are the country-specific rulings. These provide a definition of waste and include measures on waste collection and separation, recovery, landfill, and so on. The EU provides a hierarchy of waste management (with another one specific to food waste), which is an extension of the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ mantra that most people are familiar with. The EU also sets targets for waste reduction and waste to landfill.

In Queensland the relevant legislation is the Waste Reduction and Recycling Act 2011 and aims to:

  •  “promote waste avoidance and reduction, and resource recovery and efficiency actions;
  • reduce the consumption of natural resources and minimise the disposal of waste by encouraging waste avoidance and the recovery, re-use and recycling of waste;
  • minimise the overall impact of waste generation and disposal;
  • ensure a shared responsibility between government, business and industry and the community in waste management and resource recovery; and
  • support and implement national frameworks, objectives and priorities for waste management and resource recovery.”

The Act also outlines the ‘Waste and Resource Management Hierarchy’ as:


Each state in Australia has their own individual act relating to management of waste and resources, but I have been unable to find anything specific to the country as a whole. That said, the measures being undertaken are very similar to Europe.

Food waste and other waste reduction targets

Targets in the UK include: recycling half of UK household waste by 2020; reduce waste to landfill to 35% of 1995 levels by 2020; and a 20% reduction in food and drink waste by 2025.

In Queensland, targets include: reduce general waste by 5% by 2024 and reduce waste to landfill by 15% of 2012 levels by 2024. Food waste actually seems to have a far more nationwide approach but targets are much more specific to individual businesses and industries, or with regard to zero to landfill, X% to charity, etc.

85732417_005219719-1I was also very happy to read this: The Queensland Government’s state-based ban on single-use lightweight plastic shopping bags (already banned in four other states), and Container Refund Scheme, will begin on 1 July 2018! Plastic bags have been irritating me since I got here. I didn’t realise quite how much I’d taken the effect of the UK plastic bag charge for granted. In the UK I had got used to shopkeepers asking if I would like a bag; here I have to be really quick to say ‘I’ve got my own bag!’





From farm to where?

I am not very good at remembering statistics. We have so many numbers to remember as it is. That the estimated annual food waste in the UK, according to WRAP (2016) is 10 million tonnes (60% of which is avoidable) and that this quantity is equivalent to £17 billion and 20 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions gets lost on me: I always have to check the details and even then I cannot grasp these numbers, all I understand is the enormity of them.

And of course, statistics change over time and depend on whether you are measuring on a local, national or global scale, so these factors need to be clearly stated. (My research has been predominantly UK-focused, and the limitations of this are apparent now I’m on the other side of the world!) Two different sources might also give different statistics: food waste is a complex problem after all and the definition of food waste and the ability to measure food waste lend in part to the problem.

We want to be able to measure food wasted as well as its economic, social and environmental impacts and the impacts our positive actions have on dealing with the problem. 

The statistics I prefer are the ones that are more visual and therefore  (to me at least) easier to get your head round. Yes, the numbers are big, but they are manageable. For example:

Globally, enough food is produced to feed the 1.5 times the population.


But according to the FAO by 2050, based on predicted population, consumption and economic growth, food production needs to increase by 60%-70%. Therefore we not only need to improve our food systems so that current production meets population needs but also establish a food system that can feed more people.

Other statistics that I always find easy to remember are:


  • The catering industry throws away the equivalent of 1 in 6 plates of food.  Imagine you are sitting in a restaurant with five friends. You all have your favourite dish in front of you. Then the waiter comes over, picks up your plate of food and chucks it in the bin.
  • An average UK family could save £60 a month on food through more efficient meal planning, education on how to use leftovers and more general awareness on the impacts of food waste.

These are just a few examples. Every day there is something on the news about food waste. Who is contributing to the problem. What somebody is doing to address the problem. Ideas range from simple to radical.  Blame is apportioned more ominously on some parties (arguably with good reason) but what we truly need to understand is that it is the system that is at fault and we – individual consumers, retailers, manufacturers, farmers, etc – are all a part of the system.


My current series of blog posts is going to address different areas of this system that both produces food waste and has the means to make positive reductions and preventions of food waste. This link is for a 59 second video that I produced for my Masters degree which illustrates where food is wasted, the impacts of food waste, and the positive changes that are taking place. It is by no means exhaustive but I will expand on this as the weeks progress.