Food surplus & waste in primary production costs UK more than £1 billion

25th July 2019
  • WRAP sheds light on food surplus and waste on farm and says more work is urgently needed in this critical area of the food chain.
  • Around 3.6 million tonnes of food surplus and waste occur in primary production every year, worth £1.2 billion. 
  • Agricultural food waste tops 1.6 million tonnes with 2 million tonnes of surplus – equivalent to 7% of total annual UK food harvest.

New insights into the scale of surplus and food waste* on UK farms will help drive forward work on their root causes at a key stage in the supply chain, and help more food reach its intended market. Research by the UK’s sustainability body WRAP, which undertook an extensive literature review, has helped to generate the most reliable estimate to date for total farm food surplus and food waste; assessing the core categories of vegetables, fruit, cereal crops, dairy and livestock.

The scope of WRAP’s review covers the moment when a food crop is ready to harvest, or an animal to be slaughtered, and assesses surplus and waste arising from processes such as grading, packing and washing – as well as customer rejections. It estimates that total UK food surplus and waste in primary production stands at 3.6 million tonnes per annum, or 7.2% of production. The market value of this food is in the region of £1.2 billion.

WRAP’s estimates show the scale of the situation based on 2017 data, and the organisation is now working to acquire more data directly from producers to refine its findings, and help direct future action. WRAP has also produced a new online resource for farmers and growers, the Food Surplus Network provides access to a broad range of markets and outlets for surplus food.

WRAP estimates that food waste accounts for 1.6 million tonnes of the total figure, or around 3% of production with a market value of around £650 million. Sugar beet, potatoes and carrots made up more than half of the overall waste by weight, with the top ten products (see notes) accounting for 80% of the total weight. When grouped by product type, horticultural crops make up 54% of the total, cereals 30%, livestock 8% and milk 8%.

A significant factor is also the percentage of a crop that becomes waste. For example, of the top twenty foods listed milk has the highest total production by weight at nearly 15 million tonnes. In this case, 116,000 tonnes of milk waste arose representing 0.8% of total production. While for lettuces, the percentage of waste is nearly 25% of total production (104,000 tonnes). 

Surplus food comprises those products that are not sold for human consumption as intended, but which are instead used as livestock feed, redistributed to charities, or may become bio-based materials such as colorants. The amount of surplus food is estimated to be an additional 2.0 million tonnes per annum, or 4% of production with a market value of more than £500 million.

Peter Maddox, Director WRAP, “This is the most detailed study of food surplus and waste in primary production undertaken for the UK, and a key finding has been the range of waste across all food categories. This tells us is there is huge potential to reduce the amount of surplus and waste by promoting best practice, and that’s where our work is now focussed. We want to increase redistribution of surplus food as has happened across the retail sector, and I am pleased this will now be much easier through the Food Surplus Network.

“Given the scale and challenge of gathering data from the sector, we are calling on businesses and researchers to share their insights with us through our collaborative data sharing platform. This provides a simple way to share data with WRAP, which can be combined into a living evidence base. This will help bring more clarity to an issue that is happening around the globe.”

Peter Andrews, Head of Sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said: “Food waste is a major source of carbon emissions and we support WRAP’s efforts to mitigate it. The challenges involved in tackling food waste in farming are vast, but if we are to be serious about these environmental and social challenges of food production and consumption then we can leave no stone unturned. Retailers are working closely with their suppliers to minimise waste, for example by using more accurate prediction of demand, finding ways to use surplus production, and settings clear targets for future improvement.”

Mark Varney, Director of Food & Network Development, FareShare “According to WRAP, over three million tonnes of food is wasted before it even leaves UK farms, or is used to feed animals rather than people. Assuming two thirds of this could have been eaten, that’s enough to create over four and a half billion meals for UK citizens each year – a staggering figure. We hope that, by shining a light on the extent of the problem, this report will help open up a ‘new frontier’ in food waste prevention. By working in close collaboration with farmers and growers, and helping them access up to £50k towards the cost of redistributing edible surplus to people via the FareShare Surplus with Purpose fund, we can unlock more of this good food and get it onto the plates of vulnerable people.”

Jack Ward, Chief Executive of the British Growers Association; “From a grower’s perspective, it is critical that we maximise sales of the produce grown on our land for its primary use.  Any product left on farm; whether it fails to meet specification or is rejected for quality factors, is very frustrating. The costs of production are identical in either case, so for a grower the lack of return from unsold produce puts already slim margins under even greater pressure. As the sustainability of our food production systems comes under increasing scrutiny, reducing waste at every point in the food supply chain will be an increasing priority. Having new insights into the scale of food waste and under-utilised production on farm is a positive step forward, and a resource that should be of use to many growers and the wider supply chain.” 

WRAP is supporting several areas of work to refine its findings, and directly impact on waste arising in the field.

  • WRAP and Defra are supporting the not-for-profit farmer network Innovative Farmers in piloting a farmer-led approach to food waste data collection. This is investigating apple, carrot, egg, tomato and wheat production in England. 
  • With the support of the Courtauld 2025 Fresh Produce Working Group, WRAP published best practice guidance on setting and maintaining quality specifications. This follows feedback from farmers which suggests that quality specifications are one of the primary causes of waste. WRAP is supporting businesses to implement this guidance in UK supply chains.
  • The Food Surplus Network is a new resource created by WRAP that helps farmers and small businesses identify and connect with new markets for surplus food; including business-to-business trading platforms, links to emerging new markets for products made from surplus food, and a directory of organisations redistributing surplus food to charities.
  • WRAP and its Courtauld 2025 partners are also delivering practical solutions for the sector including ground-breaking projects with strawberry growers demonstrating the business case for investing in more efficient production systems, and with potato growers outlining the benefit of measuring to identify opportunities to significantly improve productivity. 
  • The Food Waste Reduction Roadmap – developed by WRAP and the IGD – is helping to increase food waste measurement on farm. Already, G’s Fresh has published data on their operations using the Roadmap’s Target-Measure-Act guidance, and helped WRAP produce guidance for the sector. 
  • WRAP’s Love Food Hate Waste programme is currently running a Spoiled Rotten campaign with messages aimed at consumers outlining the role we can all play in reducing food waste, including on farm, through the choices we make when buying produce, and ensuring what we buy is eaten. 

Ends

Notes to editor

  • Report: Food waste in primary production in the UK
  • "Food ‘surplus’ and ‘waste’ definitions follow the Food Waste Reduction Roadmap guidelines (2018). Food intended for human consumption is counted as waste if it ends up being disposed, composted, ploughed back or sent to anaerobic digestion. It counts as surplus if it is redistributed, fed to livestock or used to produce bio-based materials.
  • Top Ten average food waste tonnages in primary production, and percentages of total food harvested (2017 data)

1. Sugar beet – 347,000t: £9 million - 3.9%

2. Potatoes – 335,000t: £48 million – 5.4%

3. Carrots – 152,000t: £24 million – 15.7%

4. Milk – 116,000t: £34 million – 0.8% 

5. Wheat – 93,000t: £26 million – 1.3%

6. Poultry – 66,000t: £85 million – 3.5%

7. Onions – 66,000t: £23 million – 17.3%

8. Oilseed rape – 65,000t: £23 million – 3% 

9. Barley – 30,000t: £11 million – 1.3%

10. Cabbage – 29,000t: £14 million – 13% 

  • WRAP has measured food waste at key stages in the supply chain (post-farm gate) since 2007. The most recent estimate (2015) stands at 10.2 million tonnes 
    • Retail: 300,000 tonnes 
    • Hospitality & Food Service: 1,000,000 tonnes
    • Manufacture: 1.9 million tonnes 
    • Household: 7.1 million tonnes
    • WRAP’s definition of food waste is consistent with the approach recommended by the World Resources Institute and global Champions 12.3 group, which includes primary production. The estimate for food waste in primary production would suggest that more food waste arises from this sector than from hospitality & food service and retail combined. However, methodologies differ between these and the literature review for primary production, and therefore no direct comparison can be made. 
  • A nationwide measure of total food waste in primary production by one organisation is very difficult, time-consuming and costly to produce. It requires measurement across a large sample of farms, across each major food product and over several years. The surplus and waste estimates in WRAP’s study were obtained through an international literature review of eighty-five studies that reported food wastage rates in primary production. As data specific to the UK is unavailable for many sectors, WRAP’s estimates are based on the best available data from other comparable geographies: Europe, North America and Australia. Due to uncertainties associated with the data used, combined with the likely variation in food waste from farms due to weather, market fluctuations etc., WRAP provides ranges for both surplus and waste levels to express the likely variations.
  • To calculate the tonnage and financial value, wastage rates were multiplied with food production volumes and values for the year 2017. Food production and value statistics are taken from Agriculture in the UK (Defra, 2018a) and Horticulture Statistics – 2017 (Defra, 2018b). These were recalculated to represent only production for human consumption. 
  • Measuring food waste in primary production is challenging and it is not possible to attribute causes to specific volumes. WRAP’s experience from working with growers in the strawberry and lettuce sectors is reflected throughout the literature reviewed. This gives several generally accepted causes of waste including localised conditions (e.g. weather and soil type about which there are limited opportunities to influence). Pre-harvest factors such as variety selection, crop management and pest and disease incidence also impact on waste rates as they do for livestock sectors (e.g. breed selection, livestock management and disease incidence). Post-harvest factors such as fluctuations in supply and demand, product handling, storage conditions and failure to meet quality requirements are also causes of food surplus and waste. Consumer preferences may have a significant impact on food waste in primary production in relation to quality requirements.
  • Publication of this report follows the recent Step up to the Plate event in London, organised by the Food Surplus and Waste Champion Ben Elliot, and is a precursor to a focussed week of action on food waste, to take place in November. 
  • WRAP will incorporate this new primary production data to its Food Waste Atlas. Atlas is the world’s first freely accessible online tool to bring global food loss and waste data together in one place, enabling the tracking of food loss and waste across food types, sectors, and geography. Atlas supports the delivery of UN Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 to halve food waste by 2030. 
  • First established in 2000, WRAP is a not for profit organisation which works with governments, businesses and citizens to create a world in which we source and use resources sustainably. Our impact spans the entire life-cycle of the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the products we buy, from production to consumption and beyond.