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Cornell University

Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition

Quality or quantity? Defining food loss and waste along the fruit and vegetable value chain

A man selling tomatoes

The FAO estimates that “one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally” (FAO, 2011). As I went about my summer exploratory work on food loss in India, I spent time reflecting on how ‘food loss and waste’ is defined. No harmonized definition exists, creating challenges in evaluating food loss and waste figures and making comparisons across different sources. It is no easy task to harmonize a definition because stakeholders come from diverse perspectives, affecting definition criteria (such as utilization and edibility), time and scope.

Considering a multi-component approach to construct a transparent and clear definition for food loss and waste, I sought to explore some of these components by interviewing people engaged at different levels of the fruit and vegetable value chain. Questions I kept coming back to included: Are all losses the same? If not, how are they different? How do perceptions on quantity loss differ from quality loss?

During my visit to Jharkhand, a rural state in eastern India, I spoke with famers and vendors at markets in the capital city, Ranchi and in Khunti district, as well as women farmers from Pararya village in Khunti district. From these interviews and discussions, I learned of their perspectives on product quality and marketability as well as their preferences, which all contribute to decisions and behaviors that either keep or divert food away from human consumption. In this post I focus on tomatoes, since they have a relatively high level of perishability.

Farm-level tomato losses

Potential for product losses first begin at the farm level. Women farmers participating in focus group discussions described the process of sorting tomatoes destined to be sold in the daily market, kept for home consumption, fed to animals, or discarded to compost. From prior training on marketability of tomatoes, farmers sort tomatoes by quality attributes: presence of blemishes (rot spots, bruising, and cracking), size, and brightness. Tomatoes that are of highest quality are packed into crates for the market. Farmers will keep some of the lower quality tomatoes, which are less than a quarter rotten, for home consumption. Low-quality tomatoes that are in excess of what the household can consume over the next day will be given to neighbors and also sold at the market at a lower price. Finally, half-rotten tomatoes are fed to animals, whereas tomatoes that are mostly rotten are discarded for composting.

Tomatoes diverted to animal feed or to compost count towards food loss, in this case quantity lossDoes one diversion have greater benefit than the other?

  • Note: In their Food Recovery Hierarchy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prefers for food to be diverted to animal feed over composting based on environmental, social, and economic benefits.

Further, households keep and consume lower quality tomatoes, representing quality loss rather than quantity loss. Does consumption of lower quality products have nutrition implications?

One key take way for sure, is that quality losses represent a knowledge gap in the food loss and waste conversation, since most attention is paid to understanding quantity losses.

Market-level tomato losses

Farmers can sell their products themselves at farmers’ markets, or sell their products to a vendor for sale in markets. As previously mentioned, buyers will purchase different quality products at different prices. At the Satranjee market, I interviewed a vendor to learn more about his 15 years’ experience selling tomatoes. He explained to me that he purchases tomatoes packed in plastic crates from farmers. Expecting some spoilage, the vendor purchases tomatoes from the farmers with about a 5 percent discount. For example, he will buy 50 kg from the farmer for the price of 48 kg of tomatoes. At the market, he sorts the tomatoes into higher quality and lower quality tomatoes where lower quality ones are sold at a 50 percent discount.

Tomatoes sorted by quality and sold at different prices. Tomatoes to the left of the divider are higher quality. Tomatoes to the right of the barrier are lower quality and sold at a 50 percent discount. (Photo credit: Jocelyn Boiteau)

The vendor is careful to protect the tomatoes from sun or rain damage by keeping them covered by a tarp during transportation and also while laid out for sale. He expects to sell the good quality tomatoes all in one day. At the end of the day, he will bring the unsold lower quality tomatoes home to feed to his cattle.

Similar to my conversation with women farmers, themes about diversion to animal feed (quantity losses) as well as consumption of lower quality tomatoes (quality losses) emerged from my visit to Satranjee market.  So far, the food loss and waste conversation has focused more on quantity losses, yet quality losses represent a significant portion of food loss.

As I continue looking at food loss along the fruit and vegetable value chain, from farm to retail, it will be important to come back to these reflections on the differences between quantity and quality losses, understanding the decisions made for both losses and the potential nutrition and food security impacts.

By Jocelyn Boiteau

Jocelyn Boiteau is a PhD Student and a Tata-Cornell Scholar in the Division of Nutritional Sciences. Her research focuses on food loss from a food and nutrition security perspective.