‘Fake News’ is literally all the rage just now – and as we have seen recently with glyphosate, agriculture has not escaped unscathed.

Because so many of us rely on social media for our information, we don’t always read to find out the ins and outs about a subject, but rather prefer to read that which affirms our own opinions.

The consequence tends to be that things are viewed in black and white, good and bad. Yet life is full of contradictions, and ‘waste in agriculture’ is no exception. If you watched the BBC’s excellent series, Blue Planet, you were probably shocked at the amount of plastic in our oceans and ready to ban plastic from these shores tomorrow.

The truth, as usual, is a bit more complicated.

Firstly, according to Peter Maddox, of WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme), 80% of the waste plastic in the sea comes from 10 rivers in the world, two in Africa and eight in Asia. So, unfortunately, it is less developed countries that are not geared up to recycling and where the biggest ‘gains’ could be made. 

That doesn’t mean we are completely innocent, however – the UK uses 35m plastic bottles each day and 16m of these are not recycled. With fresh produce, nearly everything is stored in plastic punnets or packaging, much of which which is not suitable for recycling after use.

So, we have some work to do and I think there should be a special place reserved in the seventh circle of hell for the bloke (probably a fanatical hipster) who came up with utterly impenetrable razor blade packaging, but for fresh produce, plastic is essential. 

For instance, that ‘silly’ plastic film on cucumbers actually extends their shelf life from three days to 14 days. At Angus Soft Fruits, we have tried recyclable packaging with our Good Natured brand – pulp punnets with a cardboard sleeve and a clear film window made of cellulose which could be thrown on the compost heap were a big hit with shoppers. 

Sadly, the punnet was a bit abrasive on the fruit and the poorer air circulation reduced shelf life. So, it was back to the drawing board on that one.

When it comes to a choice between food waste and plastic waste, food waste has a much bigger impact on the environment, according to WRAP.

So using plastic to reduce that is necessary – plastic’s not fantastic, but it’s better than anything else available right now. 

WRAP has suggested that research should ultimately make plastic more recyclable, which might be the best solution.

The environmental and financial cost of food waste is huge. WRAP recently conducted a study of strawberries and lettuce to identify ways to reduce this and it’s fair to say there are no easy answers.

Both are high value crops, so the growers are already doing their level best to avoid losses, but there is always room for improvement. One suggestion WRAP made was that strawberry varieties with a lower percentage of undersized or misshaped fruit might be preferred. 

There is yet another conundrum here, however. The highest yielding variety might well have more tonnes of ‘waste’ left on the plant per acre, but it stacks up financially and environmentally because it also produces more tonnes of Class 1 fruit per acre – the cost of picking the less valuable fruit is more than offset by the value of the extra Class 1 picked.

Consequently, this crop would also have a lower carbon footprint than a smaller crop with less percentage waste, but lower Class 1 tonnage.

I know this sounds counterintuitive, but we had our ‘carbon audit’ done for the whole farm for the Beef Efficiency Scheme recently and it presented a comparison with the average crops across the country in terms of yield. Each crop was assessed for its carbon footprint and our results were generally pleasing, our overall footprint being comfortably lower than average. 

It was starkly obvious by looking at the graphs that the lower the yield of livestock or crop per acre, the higher the carbon footprint is. There are still people out there saying the world is flat, but any fule knose that the more acres you have to cultivate to get the same amount of crop, the more diesel you will have to burn and the higher your footprint is going to be.

It will come as no surprise to many – except themselves – that although organic farms may be trying to do their bit for the environment, when it comes to carbon audits, they are in for a shock. My auditor told me that an organic farm he audited had the highest carbon footprint of all the farms he had done.

So yield is king, and size does matter in environmental as well as economic terms. But we should still try to reduce the environmental impact of production wherever possible, which means we have some difficult choices to make. 

To reduce waste, it makes sense not to overproduce food as we do now, which means not necessarily leaving food production completely to the vagaries of the free market, but rather having some limited kind of regulation to try and match supply to demand. 

But this doesn’t sit well with trying to get our increasingly chubby population to eat more fruit and vegetables, because it would inevitably lead to higher prices for food, which, in turn, would lead to reduced consumption as people revert to cheaper sources of calories.

Which leads us to our last puzzle. Most people think healthy fruit and veg is expensive. In fact, the price of a punnet of soft fruit is the same as it was 23 years ago when we first started packing fruit for supermarkets. 

That’s 23 years of steadily increasing costs with no increase in price per kg. We have managed to stay in the game only by becoming more efficient and developing higher yielding varieties and that work will continue.

But, we need to tell our public more home truths and less of the fake news – the era of cheap fruit and veg is coming to an end, and if our political leaders are serious about improving the nation’s health, they should make concerted efforts towards encouraging us to eat twice as much fruit and veg as we are at the moment. The problem is that although fruit and veg is as cheap as it has ever been, junk food is cheaper. 

The government is introducing a sugar tax in April, 2018, which might help a little, but I am not convinced. A carrot is generally better than a stick in my experience and we should be doing much more to promote and encourage healthy eating. Supermarkets have a huge part to play here and I wouldn’t be averse to giving them a light caning by way of encouragement – 70% of the nation’s food passes through their hands and with great power comes great responsibility. 

Without coercion of some sort, they will continue to supply what the customer wants – as Sir Mick Jagger said, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.