Feedback's Gleaning Network are taking the fight against food waste to farms
Approximately one third of the world's food is wasted. All the world's nearly one billion hungry people could be lifted out of malnourishment on less than a quarter of the food that is wasted in the US, UK and Europe - let that sink in.
Want to be part of the solution? Join our gleaning network and rescue food from farms. Farms are often bearing the brunt of the risks and costs of food waste. Farmers are caught between many factors like variable weather, volatile consumer demand, and perhaps most importantly, supermarket policies.
Image: Author's own
Many farms overproduce food because they're worried supermarkets will cut their contracts if they ever fail to meet an order, but this means when there's a good year, the price crashes for everyone, and farmers end up taking the hit. One farmer I spoke to had to plough 250,000 of their cauliflowers back into the field for this reason.
Many other farmers have perfectly delicious and nutritious produce rejected just for being the wrong size, shape or appearance. One carrot farmer I spoke to said that on average they lose 1 in 4 of their carrots - some are rotten or have pest damage, but many are simply the wrong size, shape, or have minor blemishes. That's an average of 21 million portions of carrots wasted per year.
Supermarkets have often tried to blame consumer fussiness for this, and that's undoubtedly part of the problem. But supermarkets have often cultivated that fussiness - you won't see the same uniformity in a farmer's market. Supermarkets often also use cosmetic standards as an excuse to reject orders, when they don't want produce anymore or they've found a better deal elsewhere.
Gleaning consists of gathering up the leftovers after harvest, and was widespread across Europe in the middle ages, when poor peasants would gather up the remainder of the harvest.
We set out to revive gleaning in style five years ago. We take groups of volunteers out to the fields to harvest food that would normally be wasted on farms, and redistribute it to charities, like FareShare and FoodCycle.
It's a really fun day out in the countryside, picking produce and connecting with where your food comes from. We usually take groups of 10 to 20 people out to the fields, but sometimes groups as large as 50, and it's very sociable and a great way to make new friends. Volunteer gleaner Scott Chandler remarked 'A great day out!! Being in the country with lovely people, doing something fun and helping people!'. It's also a fascinating chance to talk with the farmer and hear their concerns, and witness the stunning levels of food waste first-hand.
This year gleaning has swept across the UK like never before. If you think about your five portions of fruit and veg you're meant to have per day, since Feedback started gleaning in 2011 we've saved over 3 million of these portions of fruit and vegetables from going to waste in the fields, with over 1,500 volunteers and over 150 gleaning days. Between September and December this year alone, we've saved over 1 million portions!
Nobody knows exactly how much food is wasted on farms, but there's little doubt it's colossal. A very rough estimate by the Waste Reduction Action Plan was 3 million tonnes, which would mean that there is approximately 15 times more food wasted on farms than at retail level. If that's correct (WRAP are generating more accurate figures by 2018), that means we're still only gleaning approximately 0.01% of the UK's agricultural food waste. Gleaning could be expanded to get so much more fresh, nutritious produce to those in need. But more importantly we need to pressure for policy change to design this food waste out of the system in the first place.
If you'd like to join us in the fields or join our campaigns against food waste, you can sign up to our gleaning list to find out when a gleaning day is coming up near you.
Feedback has been campaigning on food waste issues since our first Feeding the 5000 event in 2009. Since then, food waste has gone from being a little-known issue to being an international phenomenon. If you don't fancy getting out in the fields, please consider making a donation to our work - we are a small charity dependent on voluntary donations.
Martin Bowman's recent TEDx talk on gleaning is available on youtube.