It is estimated that the UK could save USD $1.5billion on landfill cost by keeping organic waste out of landfill (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2013). Organic waste is generated at every stage of the fresh produce supply chains, whether it is on farm through impact of pest and disease or by the consumer throwing away date expired food. A report in 2011 estimated that field losses of fresh produce could be up to 10% crop, whilst grading, storage and packing could be up to a further 25% with in store retail waste up to a further 3% all dependent on crop type (Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), 2011).
Retailer strategies for waste reduction tend to focus on their direct sphere of influence for example recycling in store retail waste to charity schemes such as FairShare or for waste unfit for consumption to anaerobic digestion. However focussing solely in these areas misses the impact that the retailers commercial and technical requirements have on driving behaviours on more significant losses from field, grading, storage and packing operations. One aspect of this is shown in Figure 2 below.
Figure 1: The influences within supermarket fresh produce supply chains
Retailers typically describe their supply chains as ‘end to end’ (Sainsbury’s) or ‘cradle to grave’ (Tesco) and are driven by their primary role to sell goods to the consumer rather than recognising circularity. Because many of the challenges highlighted in Figure 2 are complex and expensive to overcome, they are generally by-passed and ignored.
The implied requirement for growers to overplant and for intermediaries to over-programme crop production in order to respond to retailer needs results in the continuing negative cycle in which the only winner is the consumer. This is because:
- Excess production of crops will be sold to discount retailers or the general marketplace who will undercut the leading supermarkets because they have been able to buy surplus product that meets the equivalent supermarket quality at a discounted price
- The continuing need for the major multiples to protect their business against the influx of discount retailers results in ongoing pressure to reduce and minimise retail prices
- Any reduction in retail prices will reduce margins achieved throughout the supply chain
- Overproduction of crop will require otherwise unnecessary use of fertilisers and pesticides
- Any field crop that is not sold may not be harvested and may instead be ‘ploughed in’ which although this returns some nutrient value to the land will increase disease pressure in subsequent years especially if the crop is not grown in sufficient rotation
Although Figure 1 highlights one aspect of the unsustainability of retail fresh produce supply chains there are many others that could be explored for example the timing of agreeing programmes of supply; use of mineral fertilisers and the phosphorous cycle; pesticide usage; soil health and fertility; water use; biodiversity; energy use.
Although many initiatives to address these different elements of sustainability have been initiated within the agricultural sector, the collective responsibility of the British supermarkets to accept their position and to help research and drive change needs to be highlighted. Ultimately the retailer will respond to their customer rather than supplier requirements and the increasing popularity of television programmes such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s War on Waste can only help to improve customer awareness of the waste issues within the fresh produce supply chains (BBC, 2015) and to date almost 300 000 people have signed up to his appeal to British supermarkets to address the waste within their supply chains (BBC, 2015).