Industries in Depth

Here's how the agricultural sector can win the war on waste

Apples rotting under a tree

With more than 14 percent of food waste happening between harvest and retail, the industry can't expect consumers to solve the problem Image: Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

Lindsay Suddon
Chief Strategy Officer, Proagrica
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Agriculture, Food and Beverage

  • Nearly one billion tonnes of food is wasted each year, with 14 percent of waste happening between harvest and retail.
  • The sector could use technology and data transparency to stop food being rejected when it arrives at the buyer, instead diverting it for use elsewhere.
  • Supermarkets and restaurants are the most visible sources of waste, but it is businesses further up the production process that need to do most to get their houses in order.

According to the UN Environment Programme's Food Waste Index Report 2021, nearly one billion tonnes of food is wasted globally each year. In a world in which one in nine are hungry or undernourished, nearly a third of the food produced goes to landfill or is ploughed back into fields.

COVID-19 threw the issue of food waste into stark relief for those fortunate enough not to spend too much time worrying about food security. One of the enduring images of 2020 was the footage of thousands of litres of milk from dairy farms being poured down the drain, as demand from the hospitality sector plummeted.

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A shift in behaviour

One side-effect of lockdowns was that consumers became more aware of the amount of food wasted in their households. The volume of domestic waste dropped by a fifth in the UK during each lockdown, and people's patterns of consumption changed. Notably, 63 percent of British shoppers bought food in smaller quantities and more than three-quarters (76 percent) chose more frozen food. However, we can’t yet be certain that this will last, and there are still significant numbers of consumers who aren’t prepared to factor food waste ethics into their shopping habits.

The onus should not be placed solely on consumers to solve the issue of waste. One solution might be for businesses, governments and NGOs to nudge consumers towards making sustainable choices. For example, information campaigns might focus on the so-called 'adjacent benefits' of such choices – for example, home freezing saves money as well as reducing waste. Shops might help to reduce waste by making sure they don't offer ‘buy one get one free’ discounts on perishable foodstuffs.

Pulling together across the chain

In recent years we have seen the retail and hospitality sectors taking steps to reduce waste. However, the amount of food wasted in these sectors (two percent and five percent respectively) pales in comparison to the 14 percent of produce wasted between harvest and retail. Stakeholders across the agricultural supply chain don’t just have an ethical duty to address this, but a commercial imperative, too. If consumers are doing their bit to act responsibly on waste, they are likely to take a dim view of businesses that fail to step up.

Food loss from post-harvest to distribution in 2016, percentages globally and by region
However, the amount of food wasted in hospitality and retail pales in comparison to the 14 percent of produce wasted between harvest and retail Image: Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations

No corner of the food chain is free of waste. I have argued before that the agricultural industry should aspire to develop fragmented supply chains into a collaborative and non-linear, data-led network. A truly connected system using a common language would make it possible to identify exactly where food waste is happening and take collective remedial action. With so many players involved from harvesting to processing, logistics and more, this remains a long-term goal. But there are also interim solutions that can be put in place now.

The benefits of collaboration

Closer collaboration between growers, agronomists and agricultural manufacturers can already help maximise yields at field level and also prevent food spoilage. For example, if an agronomist has access to granular, field-level data (such as soil, seed variety, scouting, sunlight and rainfall) they can advise more confidently on inputs, such as fertiliser and pesticides, to mitigate adverse weather patterns. The manufacturers of those inputs can also use field data to create and market better fertilisers and pesticides.

Moving other forms of measurement closer to the grower could have equally profound implications for reducing waste. Buyers set particular standards for produce in their contracts, depending on factors such as quality, residue levels and aesthetics. Often, these aren’t assessed until the food reaches the processor or food manufacturer. At this point if it doesn’t meet the grade, it’s usually too late to divert it. But a tomato that isn’t suitable for a supermarket shelf in one country may be perfectly adequate to export to a different market, or to use for tomato soup.

The answer perhaps lies in giving the grower – or at least someone closer to them – the means and the responsibility to assess the produce immediately post-harvest, or even pre-harvest, against the criteria set out in the buyer’s smart contract. This would give them a bigger window of opportunity to seek out alternative avenues before the produce spoils.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

There is an opportunity to then think bigger through a centralised marketplace or digital auction mechanism that would benefit both buyers and sellers. It should be possible to set up a large-scale digital trading platform for growers and buyers; the reason it hasn’t happened outside of some quite niche examples is partly down to the reticence of growers and buyers. Buyers are wary of being transparent around the standards they set, and growers of showing how they are meeting them at the farm level.

But technology can help with that too. For example, algorithms can assess participants’ data and suggest potential alternative trading options. This could lead to smart contracts, under which the buyer can source from a wider and better-defined pool of growers (whose production practices and outcomes meet desired standards). The grower can access a digital trading environment and identify the right buyers.

Transparency is key though, as produce would need to be clearly categorised and labelled in line with the standards it meets for different buyer types and use cases and for each international export market.

Time for a change

Consumers tend to focus their frustrations on supermarkets and restaurants, which are the most visible sources of waste. But it is those further up the production process that need to do most to get their houses in order. Activists will increase public awareness about this, and demand greater accountability from governments and businesses. This is a critical moment for the agricultural sector. It has an ever-decreasing window of opportunity to make proactive changes to reduce waste before it is forced to do so.

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Related topics:
Industries in DepthFood and WaterSustainable Development
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