5 Steps on the Farm to Table Journey: Where There's Waste And How We Can Fix It


The journey from farm to table is fraught with waste and abuse. However, we can take responsibility for identifying and fix the problems at each stage.

Local, fresh ingredients are popular purchases among health and eco-conscious consumers. They understand that purchasing goods made in the neighborhood support the local economy and benefits the environment. However, grocery stores are the easiest place for most people to find food for their families. But how does this food arrive there?

The procedure is more complicated than you may imagine. Keep reading to learn more about how food moves from farm to table, where waste is rampant, and what you can do to promote a more sustainable food supply.

5 Stages Each Face Their Own Problems

All food items go through a farm-to-table process before you eat them at home or a restaurant. The journey is complex, and each step of the way presents opportunities for waste. However, we can fix each stop with a mix of technology, regulation, and personal responsibility.

Food transport car with meat

Production Requires Safe Handling And Storage

Everything starts on the farm. However, during the production stage, food is susceptible to contamination. As a result, farmers squander 20 billion pounds of vegetables annually. The reasons for discarding food include pests, sickness, or exposure to inclement weather.  

Market fluctuations have the power to determine which crops go to waste. For instance, when food prices are lower than labor and transportation, some farmers might decide not to harvest certain crops.

Health concerns are another factor contributing to food waste. For example, germs occasionally contaminate milk. Additionally, handling raw meat carelessly or improperly might result in food waste. Unfortunately, food sometimes becomes inedible before it even leaves the farm. This wastage is why manufacturers and farmers must adhere to the rules established by the Food and Drug Administration.

Producers can also prepare ahead. They should look at market trends and locate buyers in advance. With market data, they can decide which crops will thrive in their region's climate. Then, they should ensure they train every employee properly. Proper harvest, cleaning, and storage significantly reduce the risk of waste on the farm.

Food products that remain on the shelf for too long end up in landfills.

Processing Often Discards Useful Scraps

Processing on the farm or in another facility transforms the harvest into edible goods. Fruit cleaning and cheese making are two examples of processing. But unfortunately, food can become contaminated if inadequately cleaned, and bacteria can develop in improper storage. Therefore, as with the initial harvest, it is critical to uphold cleanliness and handling standards.

Processing waste also results from overproduction, accidental damage, and technological difficulties. Moreover, extra food scraps, such as skin, fat, or peels, often go to waste.

Fortunately, there are several possibilities to reduce waste in the processing phase. These include recycling and using scraps as animal feed, making clear and informative labels, and implementing resource planning software to assess shelf life and prevent overproduction.

Vegetables in a truck

Distribution Is A Race Against Time

After processing, the food moves to a distribution facility. This journey can be long, perhaps thousands of miles, depending on the type of food. Unfortunately, most farmers don't deliver their goods straight to grocery stores or restaurants.

Food is subject to deterioration in transport. Proper storage and monitoring reduce the rate of waste, but this part of the food supply suffers from the same problems as production and processing.

However, including smart sensors in shipping containers is one way that technology can assist. Advanced sensors monitor essential factors like location and temperature and alert drivers if there are any problems. In addition, state-of-the-art systems allow managers to change refrigeration settings remotely.

Thorough coordination is also essential for efficient, waste-free transportation. Modern sensors and logistics software can speed up and facilitate tracking. In addition, producers, processors, and distributors must always be in collaboration. Exchanging data is one of the best ways to anticipate the needs of consumers at the point of delivery.

Financial Incentives Encourage Inefficiency Among Retailers

Most customers first encounter their food at a large grocery store. These establishments compete to persuade patrons that they have the best produce. Although free-market competition generally lowers consumer prices, buyer behavior often incentivizes food waste.

Food products that remain on the shelf for too long end up in landfills. Perishable foods like baked goods, meat, and shellfish account for a large portion of waste at the retail stage. Consumer behavior accounts for this. Many people base their purchases on the appearance of food, abandoning perfectly edible items that may be discolored or asymmetrical. 

Retailers, therefore, have incentives to showcase only the most attractive produce. However, several merchants are experimenting with offering cheaper rates for fresh fruit that does not look appealing.

Unclear "sell-by" and "best-by" dates also contribute to waste. Fortunately, some retailers have streamlined their expiration dates to help reduce food waste. For instance, Walmart separated labels into "Use By" and "Best If Used By" categories.

Consumers Can Change The Process By Changing Themselves

Our personal efforts may seem insufficient in light of the structural problems facing the food sector, but we all need to take responsibility. According to studies, post-purchase waste represents 61% of all food waste. This fact puts the onus squarely on our shoulders. Although we often feel guilt once we realize we have wasted something, we often misjudge our needs and overbuy.  

Consider making a list of the things you'll need and organizing your meals for the next week. Then, look in your refrigerator to see what you already have. Additionally, wherever feasible, purchase locally; farmer's markets may have products available in more manageable quantities than grocery stores. Finally, make frequent, small shopping trips instead of stocking up on things that may spoil before you have a chance to consume them.

Waste Abounds, But So Does Opportunity

The farm-to-table journey is fraught with waste. Although our food system is excellent at supplying calories to many people, it is grossly inefficient. Fortunately, we can improve each step along the path by following regulations, exploring new technologies, and adopting responsibility for our own waste.

Key Takeaways

  • Cut Out the Middleman – Many of the problems latent in our food system would disappear if consumers purchased directly from producers. It's better for the farmer, better for your health, and better for the environment.
  • Consider the Source – Even if you need to buy from a grocery store, think about where the food comes from. Buying sustainably sourced food might not always work out if someone needs to ship it 10,000 miles to your plate.
  • Educate Yourself – Connect with local growers to learn how they make and deliver food. They may have insights on how you can help reduce waste. In addition, many online resources can help you plan your food purchases and get the most out of your food storage.

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