You might be familiar with the fact that in the U.S., an estimated 40 percent of food goes uneaten. That’s an alarming statistic on its own. This amount of wasted food correlates with waste in other areas: Around 21 percent of all water used in the U.S. and 18 percent of cropland is dedicated to food that will never get eaten, exercising a significant strain on already stressed resources.
But most of the traditional research into food waste looks only at what goes uneaten at the distribution, retail, and consumer levels. These measurements capture how much inventory grocery stores toss, for instance, or how much consumers let go rotten in their fridge without eating. When a team of researchers at the University of Santa Clara set out to figure out how much produce is wasted before it even leaves the fields, they found a much more dire picture.
According to the research team, around 33 percent of food that’s grown is either unharvested or left behind in the fields because the growers suspect it might not meet the specifications of their buyers. Growers often estimate the amount of produce they leave in the fields, but the Santa Clara team found, after conducting thorough analyses of 123 farms in northern and central California, that in-field food waste exceeds growers’ estimates of losses by around 157 percent Some produce categories are more prone to waste than others: The Santa Clara team found that around 55.6 percent of cabbage was left behind, compared to just 4.7 percent of perennial artichokes. These variations are often due to how uniformly a crop grows (generally, growers are looking for a consistent product to offer buyers) and how frequently they’re harvested, on top of factors like crops’ resistance to variable weather.The contrast between traditional harvesting and harvesting to minimize waste.
But the findings from the study, while limited to a specific region in California, should wake growers up to the magnitude of loss likely happening in their fields. “The first step in addressing this problem is measuring it,” says Gregory Baomker, executive director of the Center for Food Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University