An astonishing 56% of romaine lettuce, 40% of tomatoes and 39% of peaches never made it out of the field, according to a recent study by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). In some cases, the market dries up. In others, weather damages the crop.
Those findings suggest the entire food system, including farmers and growers, must work together to ensure the supply and demand of fresh fruits and vegetables match up, says Pete Pearson, director of food waste at WWF.
Growers surveyed in the report initially expressed skepticism that WWF wanted to spend time on their farms, Pearson acknowledges. But after the research teams established trust, they captured valuable information that could help farmers improve their profitability and help reduce waste system-wide.
“You see loss on farms—even, to some degree, entire fields that don’t get harvested at all,” Pearson says. “This is a market failure.”
Predictive Gaps. In many cases, growers’ hands are bound by a lack of visibility into marketplace demand beyond their typical buyers. Yet people are eating more fruits and vegetables today compared to five years ago, according to data from The Packer 2017 Fresh Trends.
Still, the WWF report states only one in 10 Americans eat the daily recommended servings of fruit and vegetables. There is an opportunity to deliver more fruit and veggie nutrients to people by just using and processing what farmers grow, even if it isn’t always fresh, WWF says.
Although other industries rely heavily on predictive analytics to ensure just-in-time production and delivery of goods based on demand, the produce sector isn’t one of them. The lack of a national tool for pairing buyers and sellers can contribute to the challenge of reducing food waste.
Tech Solutions. Growers are turning to solutions such as Zest Labs to help them fill gaps that compound waste. The company uses analytics and internet of things sensors on fruit and vegetable pallets to help intelligently route food to retailers. Crops are analyzed for shelf life. Those that will last longer can be shipped farther across the U.S., while crops with shorter shelf lives are sent shorter distances.
Some retailers split the cost of the technology with their growers, while others pay the entire price. For every $100 they save in reduced waste, they pay Zest Labs about $10.
“The grower can help ensure they’re delivering fresh product to all their customers so they reduce their reject rates,” explains Kevin Payne, vice president of marketing at Silicon Valley-based Zest Labs. He notes most food waste in crops such as berries and leafy greens happens within 48 hours after harvest.
Wasted produce means wasting the resources used to grow it. The Zest Labs approach, in effect, optimizes water by reducing waste, ensuring more fresh food reaches grocery shelves. The company’s data insights also maximize scarce labor by optimizing trucking routes and time for loading palettes.
Retailers such as Costco Wholesale and Hy-Vee turn to Zest Labs to reduce waste and unlock profits at their margins, Payne points out.
To ensure those benefits extend to farmers and the environment, all stakeholders in the food system must work to change consumer and policymaker expectations about what we eat.
“The food we eat represents a sacrifice of energy, water and wildlife habitat,” Pearson says. “As a culture, we need to value food more.”
Today, a startling 94% of U.S. consumers have no connection to agriculture, and 43% mistrust how their food is grown and produced. The Trust In Food™ platform is a major initiative of Farm Journal to scale conservation agriculture and rebuild trust in the food system. Learn more at TrustInFood.com