British growers have faced one of the toughest years on record as the erratic weather since spring has left them battling a barrage of pests and weeds and causing significant crop losses.
It comes as a new report looked at food waste on farms for the first time since 2011, and found it is a “significant but overlooked hotspot” that has been neglected in comparison to efforts cutting waste in shops and homes.
The report, called Driven to Waste and produced by the WWF and Tesco, found that food waste on farms contributes to 15.3 per cent (around 1.2 billion tonnes) of total food produced.
It concluded that food lost on farms remains neglected as an issue partly because it’s hard to measure, and partly due to an underestimation in the significance of its contribution to food waste levels, while human factors like mismatched supply and demand, and specifications, are behind the problem.
But growers have pointed to a year of erratic weather as one of the main causes of waste, with the 2021 growing season so far including a wet, mild spring, then a period of hot, dry weather interspersed with heavy rain. The unpredictable weather has led to multiple pests, when growers would usually just face one or two, plus vigorous weeds boosted by hot and wet conditions.
Organic veg grower Heather Rhodes said she has lost almost £11,000 worth of broad beans after the sciarid fly pest was spotted in the pods at the point of harvest. The pest lays eggs inside the pods that are not visible until opened and the larvae have hatched, meaning the crop is not able to be sold.
“It turned so quickly, and we pretty much lost everything overnight. We planted in April and checked it every week; you just pray it will make it to harvest,” said Rhodes, member of the South Devon Organic Producers co-operative and supplier to organic veg box company Riverford.
Sciarid fly has been tracked from farms on the east coast of England, towards the west Midlands and Herefordshire growing areas, and has now been affecting farms in Devon, said Riverford’s crop supervisor Riverford, Hannah Croft.
“No green varieties can withstand the pest. We’re looking at purple varieties to see if they fare any better,” she said.
“This year has had everything, with more than one problem. It’s very unusual to get more than one. Growers have just been firefighting to get to harvest.”
Fruit growers have also been hit, with rain affecting the skin finish and shelf life of the British cherry crop, and apples and pears suffering from the fungal disease scab, caused by cool, wet conditions.
As well as pests, weeds like fat hen have shot up, which are particularly bad for crops as they are thirsty plants that compete for water and dry out the soil.
Smaller growers, gardeners and allotmenteers have also suffered, according to head gardener at River Cottage, Adam Crofts, who said market gardeners are “dispirited”.
“It’s been the trickiest year I’ve known growing veg – it was the coldest April and May we’ve had, and then it’s been up and down all of July,” he said.
“There have been loads of pests – everyone has been talking about it. A lot of market gardeners are really dispirited this year.”
Crofts pointed to the fact climate change means weather patterns are only getting more erratic, with traditional growing seasons increasingly “jumbled up”, and unpredictable pest and disease patterns as a result.
But the Driven to Waste report said damage to crops from pests and disease leading to food waste on farms were only “linked to weather, climate and soil”, and said that while some of these factors are beyond control, some could be managed by different varieties and early treatment of pests.
Instead, the report said its research shows food loss on farms is driven by human factors and decisions later on in the supply chain, including specifications and mismatches in ordering and demand.
It also found that despite having higher on-farm mechanisation, plus higher income populations, Europe, North America and industrialised Asia, contribute over half (58 per cent) of farm-based waste. Food waste is a major contributor to greenhouse gases; according to the research, on-farm food waste accounts for four per cent of all global emissions, and 16 per cent of emissions from agriculture.
Box schemes usually have broader specifications for blemishes and size, but there are still restraints to ensure veg fits into the box. Farmers can also cut their own waste by selling out of spec veg in farm shops or their own farm-gate veg stall, or they can send to processing for things like sauerkraut – all of which take additional planning and facilities.