A new report says all-powerful UK retailers are pushing farmers into over-production of fruit and vegetables to meet demands such as strict cosmetic standards
UK supermarkets are generating vast mountains of food waste through their treatment of the farmers in their supply chains, according to the food waste charity Feedback.
Fruit and vegetable farmers who responded to a Feedback survey reported they wasted an average 10-16% of their crop in typical years, equal to 22,000-37,000 tonnes of produce every year, with six in 10 respondents saying they over-produced because of the pressure to meet buyer orders for fear of losing contracts
WRAP’s own research in 2011 found that supply chain wastage, though less than 10%, can approach 25% in some products. More recent research last year found that 19% of lettuces and 9% of strawberry crops were wasted on the farm due to a mismatch in supply and demand or for quality or cosmetic reasons.
With supermarkets having more than 85% of the UK market, they are able to dictate terms
Feedback puts the blame on an asymmetry of power in the food supply chain, which has created a system that is “synonymous with waste”.
With supermarkets having more than 85% of the UK market, they are able to dictate the terms by which food is grown, harvested and transported, including cosmetic standards such as exact size, shape and colour. Some farmers in the survey reported a loss of up to 40% of their crop because of failure to meet cosmetic standards.
The report quotes Guy Watson, founder of vegetable box delivery company Riverford Organic Farmers as saying: “When I used to supply the supermarkets you generally grew about a third more than you thought you would sell, just to make sure that the supermarket buyer didn’t have a tantrum if you ran short. Routinely you have more than you can sell and so you just mow it off and plough it in – that’s the normal thing to do.”
Some supermarkets, including Tesco, Asda, Morrison’s, and the Co-op, carry “wonky” ranges of cosmetically imperfect fruit and vegetable, but a survey by the Women’s Institute last year found that most stores (68%) offered only one or two wonky alternatives to customers.
We have consistently argued that the scandal of food waste goes far beyond what consumers throw in their bin
While signatories to WRAP’s Courtauld 2025 agreement, including 95% of UK food retailers, have committed to measure on-farm food waste by this year, there is a lack of data compared to consumer food waste, Feedback says. Tesco is the sole exception, and the supermarket is praised for providing publicly available data of the waste in its supply chain and for its commitment last year to work with its top five suppliers to reduce waste by 50% by 2030. However, even Tesco saw its food waste tonnage increase in 2016, to 46,684 tonnes.
“We have consistently argued that the scandal of food waste goes far beyond what consumers throw in their bin. With supermarkets driven to reduce food prices, and the environmental costs of waste externalised, the food system drives both over-production in fields and over-consumption, or over-purchase in stores, with associated waste both pre- and post-retail,” Feedback said.
Tesco CEO Dave Lewis chairs the Champions 12.3 food waste initiative.
Liz Goodwin, former CEO of WRAP, who now heads up food loss and waste at the World Resources Institute, said many UK retailers are working to address issues in their supply chains, with Tesco’s CEO Dave Lewis, who is also chair of the Champions 12.3 food waste initiative, “committing a significant amount of time to work on the issue of food loss and waste”.
She agreed that there isn’t enough measurement of waste at the farm level “so we don’t know enough about the scale (or not) of any problem”.
Although the report criticises the Courtauld Commitment, for which Goodwin was responsible during her time at WRAP, for being slow to tackle on-farm food waste, she said: “I wouldn’t be that critical of Courtauld ... The Courtauld Commitment had to be framed in a way that was acceptable to businesses and government. It is still challenging, even if it’s not perfect. It goes a long way further than anyone might have expected.” (See also: ‘We need more companies to join food waste battle’)
This is part of our in-depth briefing on Food Waste. See also:
Main picture credit: Feedback/Twitter
Feedback food waste tesco Women's Institute Champions 12.3 FMCG WRAP WRI Courtauld 2025