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Agricultural Policy

A farming perspective on the food waste debate: why access to innovation matters.

People rightly abhor waste and are shocked to learn that adding up the plate scrapings, moldy bread and old veg we may throw away between farm gate and washing-up totals almost 1/3 of all available food*. However I believe that the debate is often too narrow in the scope of what we mean by “available food” and food waste. A farming perspective is needed on the food waste debate.

Summary

1. Adopting new tools or technology such as a fridge, frees up time and allows people to do more, often while getting better results.  

2. The same can be said for farming. Yet why is there a feeling among some people that society should edit the choices farmers can make from tools and innovations that science makes possible?

3. If British and European farmers are unable to reap some of the harvest which other farmers round the world can routinely achieve through access to better tools and technology, then those losses on our farms are self-imposed waste.

4. Only by improving the tools available to farmers can we increase food productivity while reducing the environmental foot print of agriculture.

Imagine life without a fridge

Being more efficient, by adopting new tools or technology, frees up time and allows people to do more, often while getting better results. For example buying a fridge better preserves food, reducing waste, as well as being more convenient than having a separate larder for food storage. You can choose to shun the modern convenience of a fridge and buy fresh milk daily, keep meat under fly proof screens and shop for ice to cool other perishable foods, like our great grandparents, but such choices would probably be seen as eccentric, rather than the actions of a back to the future leader of fashionable food culture. Tools like fridges work, they save time and reduce waste for modest cost. 

Why then is there a feeling among some people that society should edit the choices farmers can make from tools and innovations that advances in science make possible? Only by improving the tools available to farmers can we increase food productivity while reducing the environmental foot print of agriculture.

The farming equivalent of consumers living without fridges

Farmers start each year with fields full of potential; as the days pass those fields may experience dry weather limiting crop growth or wet water logged soil which stunts plants. Insect pests can suck the sap from crops which may also fall victim to attack by fungal spores, grazing slugs, grubs or pigeons. What ends up in the combine harvester is a fraction of the original potential yield, the success of the farmer is judged by how much of that potential they can protect and bring to market in a sustainable way.

Ownership of the world record wheat yield swaps between the UK and New Zealand and is over 16 tonnes per hectare. UK average yields are 8 tonnes per Hectare. Even record breakers are not capturing all the yield potential available as nature takes its share though bad weather or pests and disease, for average growers a lot more food goes un-harvested. If British and European farmers are unable to reap some of the harvest which other farmers round the world can routinely achieve because they have better tools and technology, then those losses on our farms are self-imposed waste. Populist, anti-innovation policies intended to persuade us that we should be afraid of newfangled tools and technology, cause the farming equivalent of consumers living without fridges.

The world population is expected to increase by the population of Germany (83 million) every year on average for the next 30 years as we head towards 10 billion people on this planet. To waste the potential of our farm land and our farmers by denying them access to innovations made possible by science and research is just as morally dubious as our sometimes casual behavior towards the precious food resources in our fridges.

 

*http://www.fao.org/save-food/resources/keyfindings/en/