Farming News - German government investigates post-harvest losses

German government investigates post-harvest losses

30 May 2013
Frontdesk / Arable / Machinery


The latest in a series of studies aimed at reducing waste and improving Germany's food chain efficiency has been published, looking into post-harvest losses.


German countryside. Photo credit: James Cridland

Released on Wednesday, the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV) study is the first to look at losses in primary production, having previously examined waste further along the food chain. As would be expected from an industrialised country (where most food waste has been shown to occur in retail and the home as a result of consumerist mores), BMELV said "post-harvest losses in agriculture are at a relatively low level," but suggested they "can sometimes be subject to significant fluctuations from year to year," as a result of weather or pest pressures. 


The BMELV study was carried out by the Thünen Institute, Max Rubner Institute and Julius Kühn Institute. Investigations revealed that post-harvest losses range between three percent (wheat) and eleven percent (dessert apples), though these levels can vary depending on certain conditions.


Commenting on the latest stage of the study, Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner said "Every tonne [of food] wasted, is a tonne too much. Even if post-harvest losses in Germany are rather small, we must take every opportunity to avoid the waste of valuable resources."


She added, "Of course, the agricultural sector has a high economic interest in avoiding losses along the supply chain. Germany is at the forefront in the fight against waste and it is our goal that all EU states reduce the amount of recyclable food waste by half by 2020. This target is ambitious but it is achievable if other EU countries to follow Germany's example and start broad social alliances. "


Aigner said the BMELV study has been useful in identifying where crop losses occur and how they can be avoided. However, she said there is still a shortage of data on food loss and research into avoiding such waste. The German minister called for more funding to pursue investigations across Europe.

Study results and recommendations


BMELV researchers looked at four widely grown crops representing different foodstuffs: these were wheat, potatoes, apples and carrots (which the department said represent cereal, root, fruit and vegetable crops).


They found:


  • Wheat: losses of 3.3 percent, equating to a volume of about 820,000 tonnes per year over the last three years.
  • Potatoes: about 5 percent loss, or 537,000 tonnes per year over the last three years.
  • Dessert apples: about 11 percent loss, amounting to 98,000 tonnes in 2010/11 alone.
  • Carrots: about 4.2 percent loss, or 22,000 tonnes in the marketing year 2010/11.


Agricultural products which were used as animal feed, for power (e.g. as biomass), or left as fertiliser on the field were not included as waste, BMELV said. Pests, disease and incorrect storage accounted for the majority of observed losses.


Making recommendations for reducing waste, the study authors said that wheat losses could be tackled though targeted investments in better storage systems (which they estimated would shave five to six percent off losses). Better harvesting and processing methods, alongside improvements to storage conditions (in terms of temperature, humidity), could also see potato losses "reduced to a minimum."


Similarly for carrots, better harvesting and storage would cut losses. The authors said apple losses may remain relatively high, and acknowledged that storage is energy-consuming and costly. However, they suggested that over recent years this has effectively reduced losses. Researchers advised "federal and state governments to support agriculture in Germany in optimizing their storage facilities."


In addition to the after-effects of inclement weather and pests, BMELV said producers informed researchers that consumer behaviour or demand can also affect waste.


In order to deliver better storage facilities, BMELV pointed to the joint initiative "Improvement of Agricultural Structures and Coastal Protection" (GAK), which supports agricultural enterprises, as well as processors and marketers, in making business investments. They supported decisions to pursue GAK beyond 2014.      


They also recommended bolstering funding for agriculture in developing countries, as an estimated 40 percent of food in the world's poorest countries is lost between the field and the end consumer, as opposed to the industrialised west, where "the bulk of food loss occurs with end users and wholesalers".


FAO estimates that losses from farm to fork equate to more than 150 kilograms per person per year in the Sahara region.


Unsurprisingly, the authors (who represented three German research institutes) called for more R&D funding to prevent losses. Thünen Institute researchers highlighted their work into climate change and its impacts on soil health, and development of insect pests and weeds. In this respect, the institute is also working with the international APHLIS (African Postharvest Losses Information System) database and the Federal Agency for Agriculture and Food (BLE) to help to generate reliable data on post-harvest losses, they said.


The authors also called for the abolition of strict EU marketing standards which they said have led to produce being destroyed unnecessarily. They added that, although 26 out of 36 specific marketing standards for fruit and vegetables have been abolished (including those covering carrots and potatoes), the ten remaining specific marketing standards - for tomatoes, salads, peppers, apples, pears, peaches and nectarines, strawberries, grapes, citrus and kiwi - should also be abolished so as to prevent them acting as "an excuse to destroy agricultural products."


They extended this call to private standards, the most infamous examples of which are aesthetic restrictions set by supermarkets. The BMELV rapporteurs assured that, as interest and understanding of how food is produced increases in Germany and the rest of Europe, "More and more consumers are willing not only to accept flawless agricultural products, but to buy [them] because they know that Nature is not standardised. Whether crooked or straight… the shape does not change the taste."


They pointed out that marketing by region or origin has taken precedence over aesthetics in the minds of most European consumers. However, they acknowledged that no fixed definition of "local" or "regional" exists. They advised that "strengthening regional labelling and marketing [would] mean shorter transport distances, less damage and less loss."