Farming News - Waste charity calling for farmer collaboration

Waste charity calling for farmer collaboration

19 Jun 2014


The Gleaning Network – a charity recently set up to combat poverty and waste – is appealing for farmers to allow volunteers to harvest unwanted produce as part of a pioneering project to tackle waste and food poverty.


The Network is affiliated with the Feeding the 5,000 initiative, which has sought to draw attention to food waste by serving up a free lunch for thousands of passers-by in central London made entirely from food that would otherwise have gone to waste. Following events in Trafalgar Square in 2009 and 2011, groups in Paris and Amsterdam have organised free meals along similar lines.


In Europe, around 20 percent of fruit and vegetables are lost at farm level; supermarket cosmetic standards play a large role in this, and although there are moves being undertaken to tackle these wasteful standards, in the meantime organisations like the Gleaning Network are attempting to put food that would otherwise be wasted to good use.


Unharvested produce picked by Gleaning Network volunteers range from unwanted surplus produce in good years, to crops that have been rejected due to cosmetic imperfections and fruit overlooked during the commercial harvesting of orchards.


The Network points out that 5.8 million people live in deep poverty in the UK, and that poverty is worsening. Gleaning Network has a historical precedent; the group is attempting to tackle the twin problems of food waste by reviving the ancient practice of gleaning – or gathering the crops leftover after harvest. The resurrection of gleaning began in the US in the late 1980s, and has since spread to Europe.


Figures from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation show that around the world between 30 and 50 percent of food grown is lost before it can be put to use. In the UK, the loss of fruit and vegetables is especially concerning, given that most waste occurs later in the supply chain in Western countries, in contrast to developing countries where issues with infrastructure and storage mean most food losses occur just after harvest.    


Last year, the Network estimates that it took in 48 tonnes of produce (enough for 200,000 meals) over just 18 days. Gleaning Network volunteers will harvest crops of fruit and vegetables that farmers would otherwise leave unharvested for free and redistribute the food through charities including FareShare (which also deals with a number of large retailers' unsold food), CFE, and Food For All.


The Network is hoping for food in quantities above 1 tonne of produce, but is also interested in lower quantities for lighter fruits and vegetables or on farms located close to its volunteer hubs. Harvesting and transport are coordinated by the Network, but fit into farmers' schedules. Volunteers are supervised to ensure farm rules are followed and all work undertaken complies with health and safety requirements.


In addition to working to divert unsalable produce where it is needed most, the Network is aiming to reduce the amount of food wasted by campaigning to allow more cosmetically imperfect produce to make it onto retailers' shelves.


When severely wet and dim weather affected a range of horticultural crops in 2012, supermarkets temporarily relaxed their standards under pressure from farm groups. This saved an estimated huge 300,000 tonnes of produce, and though the relaxation two years ago was only temporary, there is evidence of a shift in consumers' attitudes towards outsized or odd looking produce; cosmetically imperfect produce is the fastest growing fresh produce line, according to the British Retail Consortium.


Pete Thompson, of Brook Farm in Essex, allowed the Network to glean a tonne of spring greens, which were left in his fields due to a lack of demand. He said, "Realistically there will always be crop grown in excess of demand because growers cannot risk under-supplying customers because they will lose business as a result."


Thompson, who is also involved in trialling a model orchard and looking at juicing and preserving as means of supplying outgraded produce to retailers, said he was encouraged that "It was mainly the younger generation making up the bulk of the participants with a passion for what they were doing and why."


Geoff Philpott, from Elmwood Farm in Kent, who supplied outgraded cabbage and cauliflowers, said "It was good to see our products go to good use rather than the crops getting ploughed back into the ground… The idea of gleaning fresh vegetables that do not meet today's 'high appearance' criteria, but that are still very good, is a fantastic idea that helps a lot of less fortunate people [and] it's a bonus for us to have the opportunity to show people what we do and how we do things on the farm."


He added that it was "Very easy to host a gleaning day," despite the fact that the second gleaning on Elmwood farm was filmed by CNN and Al Jazeera news networks.   


Interested in having your unharvested produce gleaned? If so, please contact Martin Bowman, UK Gleaning Co-ordinator, at or on 07816088210.