Food waste – it’s a phrase that leaves a bad taste in the mouth. As food waste is a recurring problem in apple production, what can we do to reduce it?

The problem of food waste in UK apple orchards was illustrated last month, when TV presenter Ben Fogle tweeted a video of himself in an orchard in Kent. Every apple on the entire crop was left unharvested on the trees, ultimately ending up as food waste. The reason? The apples were too large for UK supermarkets, and therefore simply not worth picking.

Food waste is defined as food that was originally produced for human consumption but ends up being disposed of without being eaten. (Apples thinned or removed from the trees during the season as part of regular growing practices, for example, do not count as food waste.) Fortunately, waste to the extreme seen in Ben’s video is not a common occurrence in the UK fruit sector. However, the video does allude to the undocumented amount of viable fruit that is left to rot in orchards after every harvest season. The fact we don’t know how big the problem is has been highlighted by WRAP as a particular area of concern. 

While there are many reasons for fruit waste, a major instigator in developed countries is the strict requirements from supermarkets on the size, shape, and blemishes that Class I produce has. These requirements are driven by consumer tastes – British shoppers simply won’t buy apples that are too large. 

Food waste is very detrimental to an apple grower’s business. Waste fruit represents wasted labour, irrigation and chemical input costs, on top of lost revenues. Also, apples left unpicked on trees can cause hormone imbalances in the tree, reducing fruit yields next season, while apples left to rot on the orchard floor can become a reservoir for fungal diseases. 

Several organisations offer solutions to turn already “wasted” food to good use. Fellow agritech start-up Cogz is building a platform to get surplus and “wonky” fruit off trees and direct to the consumer. Entomics is seeking to turn food waste into high value chicken and fish feed using black soldier fly larvae as a conversion engine. More locally, several communities have “scrumping” and communal pick expeditions. While these are all great solutions to repurpose “unsellable” fruit, it doesn’t solve the problem. Outfield believes its system can tackle some of the underlying issues that lead to food waste.

In November, Outfield carried out a pilot study with WRAP and Worldwide Fruit, to count the number of dropped apples in an orchard post-harvest. The idea is to use Outfield’s drone surveying techniques to count and map the dropped fruit after picking, allowing growers to pinpoint causes of waste and thus tackle them. In-field measurements from growers may also allow organisations such as WRAP to better understand the scale of the issue and drive future research. As the old adage goes, what gets measured gets fixed.

While we eagerly await the results of this project, Outfield can already help reduce food waste in fruit production in other ways. By using Outfield’s fruit and blossom counting systems, growers can better manage the number of fruit on each tree in the orchard, and therefore the size of those fruit (more apples on a tree = smaller sized fruit).

Furthermore, better harvest yield estimates produced by using Outfield can help growers manage labour and storage requirements better, avoiding a scenario where pickers or storehouse space are not available for a crop, causing it to go to waste.

It’s early days yet, but hopefully by providing better orchard surveying and management tools to growers, Outfield can help reduce the amount of fruit that ends up as food waste every year, giving Mr Fogle one less thing to Tweet about.

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