Eggplants in a dumpster

Food loss and food waste: the world’s solvable problem

By guest writer, Lisa K. Johnson, PhD

I started reading about food loss and waste in 2010, when a couple of books about food waste came out: Wasted, by Tristram Stuart and American Wasteland by Jonathan Bloom. As a lifelong horticulturist, I read a lot about our food system. These two books stood out because they transformed something I learned about in college: postharvest loss, which seemed to mostly happen in other countries, into an issue that’s happening here and now. They raised a question for me that I couldn’t shake: How much fresh produce is grown but never harvested from farms in the U.S.? I was a grad student at that time, and so I did what good researchers do: I reached out to the federal government, universities, and nonprofits to try to find out who had the answer to that question. To make a very long story short, nobody did.

Since I’m a curious person, and pretty determined (some people might use the word stubborn), I had to find out for myself. I’ve spent all my time on that question since then. I have done field research, interview work, and lots of writing. I have gotten close to the answer, though. My research in North Carolina was the first in the country to quantify unharvested, yet fresh and healthy vegetables that are left in the field. Mostly these vegetables get tilled into the soil. In North Carolina, on average, there are about 4,500 pounds of fresh, edible vegetables left unharvested on every acre of production. We have 280,963 acres of fresh produce crops here. I’ll let you do the math, I’m a horticulturist! A friend and colleague of mine, Greg Baker, led a similar study in California that found on average, over 10,000 pounds of fruit and vegetables per acre were left unharvested.*

What is food loss and food waste?

Food loss is different than food waste. The definitions aren’t totally clear, and different groups define them differently. In general, most of us working in food loss and food waste consider where the loss or waste happened along the supply chain in order to choose a label. Typically, food loss occurs at an industrial level, while food waste occurs on the consumer level. Food loss is a result of constraints in agricultural production, harvesting, packing, sorting, cooling, marketing, and then in shipping and distribution. It’s something that happens, but it’s more likely the result of a mistake or limitation somewhere. Food waste, in contrast, typically happens in retail, in restaurants and institutions, and in the home. Very often, food waste is the result of a behavior or a decision. 

When farmers have food loss in fruit and vegetable crops, it’s an emergency situation because these foods are extremely perishable. Time is of the essence and the decisions that have to be made vary when the price drops, or a buyer suddenly doesn’t want the same volume they wanted 6 months ago. The result is a surplus of essential food with nowhere to go. In an ideal world, growers could somehow recoup their expenses. It’s possible that they could sell the crop to another buyer, but those relationships can take years to develop. Another obvious choice would be to donate the crop. If it’s still in the field, growers will be guaranteed to lose money if they go that route.

Understanding and addressing food loss

The constraints of our agricultural system mean that growers have to make difficult choices under challenging stressors to get extremely perishable crops harvested, packed, cooled, and shipped. When conditions aren’t perfect—which happens very often—fresh, healthy, essential foods are lost along the way. 

Perfectly nutritious, high-quality fresh fruit and vegetables are not harvested when the price offered will not cover the cost of harvest. Imperfect, or “ugly” fruit and vegetables are sorted out during packing, because buyers will reject the entire truckload if they are found. Whole fields can be lost if the crop matures too quickly, or not quickly enough to meet the stipulations of a contract. If a truck is late for a delivery, the entire load is in jeopardy and could meet its fate in a landfill. When food that is intended for human consumption is removed from the supply chain in these and other ways, it is considered food loss.

We have this idea, starting from when we were little kids reading books that featured farmers and tractors and chickens, that farming is a romantic lifestyle. Here are some quick facts for you, for the very grown-up food system we are working with in the U.S., in 2024. Most of the fruit and vegetables we see at the grocery store are harvested by hand. Fruit and vegetable growers employ massive workforces in order to get the freshest possible foods to our plates. Wholesale prices have remained flat for over a decade, during which time every single input cost has risen, including and especially labor costs. Growers are producing these most Essential Foods in unpredictable conditions, both because of fluctuations in our weather and climate, and because of fluctuations in the marketplace, all parts of which are outside their control. Our government considers fruit and vegetables to be “specialty crops,” which allows them to be easily overlooked when our agricultural safety net is planned, discussed, and funded. Growers do not receive subsidies to support their work, and they are not paid to leave fields unplanted. They have limited options for crop insurance. Most of these challenges are very different from those of corn, soy, and grain farms, which are well supported and which require very few people to run. 

I think that by now there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that fruit and vegetables are the most important things we can eat. With the knowledge we have now about diets, preventable diseases, and health outcomes, I’m going to go ahead and call fruit and vegetables “Essential Foods.” You and I know that these foods are critical to our health, and if we think about it really hard, these are the most critical foods for our collective American public health. Yet, there’s a disconnect between how fruit and vegetable growers are seen and supported in the U.S. and their role in our everyday lives. 

The work being done at Food Forward means that growers have a partner they can rely on and call anytime they have surplus fruit or vegetables. Food Forward supports them when they are ready to find a home for this surplus. When growers make quick decisions, Food Forward is responsive and ready at any moment to pick up and distribute fruit and vegetables, our most Essential Foods, to people with limited access. Food loss and waste has been called the world’s dumbest problem because it occurs at the same time we have so much need. Can’t one problem be used to solve the other? Yes. Food loss can be solved with prevention, and recovery. Food Forward provides solutions for growers of our most essential foods.

Lisa K. Johnson, PhD, is a leader in on-farm food loss research, serving as an independent consultant. She is a member of Food Forward Inc.’s Council of Advisors. Her projects focus on in-field measurement, estimation and analysis of food loss, in fruit and vegetable crops. She provides collaborators with technical assistance and protocols for reducing food loss. Dr. Johnson is a strategic and research partner to the U.S. EPA, Society of St. Andrew, Boston Area Gleaners, ReFED, World Wildlife Fund, World Resources Institute, UpRoot Colorado, and the Consortium for Innovation in Postharvest Loss & Food Waste Reduction. Dr. Johnson has authored chapters in The Economics of Food Loss in the Produce Industry and Routledge Handbook of Food Waste. She has spoken to dozens of audiences, including the Consumer Goods Forum and the European Commission, has been quoted in media outlets such as Forbes and Huffington Post, and has led proposal development for over $4M in awarded funding. Dr. Johnson also serves as Adjunct Faculty at North Carolina State University, in the Department of Horticultural Science.

*Field measurement in vegetable crops indicates need for reevaluation of on farm food loss estimates in North America Lisa K. Johnson, Rebecca D. Dunning, Chris C. Gunter, J. Dara Bloom, Michael D. Boyette, Nancy G. Creamer Agricultural Systems 167 (2018) 136–142

On-farm food loss in northern and central California: Results of field survey Measurements Gregory A. Baker,⁎, Leslie C. Gray, Michael J. Harwood, Travis J. Osland, Jean Baptiste C. Tooley Resources, Conservation & Recycling 149 (2019) 541–549