Reducing global food waste can enhance farmer profits

We all shake our heads when a plate of half eaten food is scraped into the garbage.

We agree that it is a shame when fruits and vegetables are trashed simply be-cause they have cosmetic flaws.

Global food waste is an international problem. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that as much as a third of all food grown is lost or wasted — about 1.3 billion tonnes worth almost $3 trillion.

Canadian consulting firm Value Chain Management International calculated that $31 billion worth of food is lost or wasted each year in this country. There are problems all along the food chain: on farms, the transportation system, processors, restaurants and at home.

But what about western Canadian farms? Do they contribute to the shame of food waste?

Prairie farms are among the most technologically advanced and efficient food producers in the world. Most producers here would take offence if they were accused of wasting food.

However, harvest losses are a form of waste, and steps can be taken to reduce harvest loss even with the most technologically advanced combines.

In so doing, farmers could tap in to potential savings of thousands of dollars per quarter section.

At its CanolaPalooza event in Portage La Prairie, Man., last month, the Canola Council of Canada highlighted research done by the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute and the council on harvest seed loss.

Running the combine at a speed too fast for crop conditions or setting combine meters wrong can result in three to five bushels of crop blowing out the back and onto the ground.

There will always be a little loss, but if the loss was two bu. an acre above the minimum threshold, then that lost canola seed over 160 acres would be valued at $3,200 based on a price of $10 a bushel.

And the cost is more than the lost revenue. There is the wasted fertilizer, pesticide, fuel and labour that went into growing those lost bushels. There is also the cost of the herbicide needed next season to control the volunteers.

Grain spoilage in storage is also an avoidable loss. The tens of thousands of dollars lost in the spoilage of one grain bin would have paid for a monitoring system to prevent the spoilage.

The first step to minimizing loss is to measure it. In combines, it is a case of using pans to catch seed blowing out the back to accurately calculate the harvest lost.

That measurement can be used to fine tune the combine to lower the loss.

Measurement is the hallmark of many efficiency systems across all industries.

It provides awareness of what is wasted or lost, identifies where the problems exist and points to potential solutions to eliminate them.

Information from measurement can also work into cost-benefit calculations.

For example, losses in seeding and harvesting can often be reduced if operators slow down.

However, on the other hand, today’s huge acreages and labour shortages generate a desire to move quickly, particularly when help is available.

The proper measurement and analysis can help a farmer determine the sweet spot in the tradeoff between the need for speed and the desire to cut waste.

And they will likely improve their bottom line.

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