An ever-growing army of volunteers is heading out this summer to fields and orchards across the country to tackle farm waste. Martin Whybrow reports on why it is needed and how to get involved.
It might look like the scene of a messy accident but this is lunchtime, in the shade, at a glean on a farm in Kent. The red smears that cover all of us are blackcurrant juice, the inevitable result of a morning spent harvesting fruit that would otherwise have gone to waste. Mid-afternoon, all boxed up, the fruit is ready to be shipped off to a depot from where it will be distributed to local charities and other good causes. Around 20 hot, tired but happy volunteers have harvested 120kg.
This picture is replicated across the country and, increasingly, abroad as well. And now is an ideal time to get involved, as the gleaning season is upon us.
Gleaning provides an insight into one aspect of food waste. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that roughly one-third of the edible parts of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally, equating to about 1.3 billion tons per year (enough, to put it into context, to feed ten times the population of the US) and as we are witnessing, much of it never leaves the farms.
Why are these blackcurrants going to waste? As usual, the farmer has filled us in on the background at the start of the day. These bushes are too small for the machinery that is used to harvest this fruit. It does so by shaking and will be feasible on these bushes in a couple of years’ time but would risk breaking them at this relatively early stage. In the meantime, it is not commercially viable to harvest them by hand.
On a previous glean of pears, we collected hundreds of kilograms. Pears had been harvested from these trees a couple of months earlier for one of the big supermarket chains, that then puts them into cold storage. The fruit that wasn’t ready is left, ripens naturally but there’s no market for it. Ironically, as plenty of munching during the day proved, the pears we were picking were much tastier than those that lined the supermarket aisles.
A cauliflower glean demonstrated the inflexibility of our commercial farming system. A warm spring had meant the cauliflowers were ready early but the supermarkets were still importing cauliflowers from Spain. The contracts with the foreign and domestic farmers are too inflexible to allow for the vagaries of the seasons (ever less predictable, of course, because of climate change) so while we were gleaning produce that would otherwise have been left to rot, lorry load after lorry load of the same produce was travelling by road from the continent.
There are more generic reasons why so much food is wasted on farms.
Supermarkets encourage overproduction by penalising farmers if they run short of produce, but they are not willing to take excess produce when there are gluts. Supermarkets, as is now well publicised, also regularly reject produce that’s considered to be the wrong size, shape or appearance. Supermarkets also sometimes change their orders at the last minute, particularly if they find a better deal with a different supplier.
It is easy to sign up for gleaning. Feedback, a charity set up in 2012, has hubs in London, Kent, Sussex, the North West, West and East England. Once on their volunteer email list, you will be notified of any local gleans. You can sign up here. There is usually a pick-up of volunteers from the nearest railways stations and also car-shares with fellow gleaners.
Gleaning is sociable, everyone can work at the pace that suits them and it is spreading to continental Europe (it is already well-established in the US). Carrie Eeles started as a volunteer and is now Feedback’s Kent Gleaning Coordinator. “It is the most eye-opening job I’ve ever done, it is so rewarding but so frustrating too. Every time we save a ton, there’s probably 15 to 20 tons left behind.” It is particularly heart-breaking and frustrating for farmers, she points out. As such, more and more are getting involved, in part through talking to other farmers. The number of volunteers is increasing as well. “It is really cross-generational,” says Carrie, “including families with kids. Everyone chats and shares their experiences, such as how to cook and preserve the produce. It is a really rewarding way to spend a day, providing food for people who are vulnerable, perhaps in food poverty.”
With the blackcurrants, as with all of the other gleans I’ve been on, there is a feeling of scratching the surface. We could probably have had 20 volunteers for several more days and still not rescued all of the produce. However, it is great to have saved at least some of it. By the start of this year, Feedback’s network had gleaned 288 tons of produce with over 1500 volunteers across 154 gleaning days. That’s a lot of fruit and veg – equal to more than 3 million portions. There’s plenty more out there ready to be saved, so if you’ve some spare time, why not get involved in this terrific, growing movement.