Never heard of gleaning? HEATHER BARRON explains why it's such an important part of rural life

GLEANING is a modern way of fighting food waste and yet it is a remarkable movement that's been around since Biblical times.

It's the word given to the collecting of crops left in a farmer’s field after the harvest. This was historically carried out by the poor, and in many parts of Europe, right up to modern times, the ‘right to glean’ was enforceable by law.

In the UK today, gleaning involves gathering fresh produce from farms that would otherwise be wasted. The farmer will harvest as much as he can, and what is left on the fields would usually be chopped up and tilled back into the land.

Before that happens, droves of gleaners come in to collect what they can, and distribute it to the needy through foodbanks and humanitarian organisations.

Feedback’s Gleaning Network coordinates volunteers, the farming industry and food redistribution charities to salvage the thousands of tonnes of fresh fruit and vegetables that are wasted on farms every year across the UK and Europe, and direct this fresh, nutritious food to people in need.

Nobody knows exactly how much food is wasted on farms because it’s been largely overlooked and not measured as well as other food waste, but there’s little doubt it’s colossal. WRAP’s (Waste and Resources Action Programme) rough estimate is that it’s as much as 3 million tonnes, which would mean that there is approximately 15 times more food wasted on farms than at retail level. More accurate data should be available by 2018.

Feedback has encountered farms that are wasting 25,000 cauliflowers per week, carrot producers who have to compost 25 per cent of their entire crop, and numerous farms with whole fields of produce going to waste.

It begs the question, ‘Why does so much food waste occur at farm level?’

The answer is that farms are often bearing the brunt of the risks and costs of food waste. Farmers are caught between many factors like variable weather, volatile consumer demand, and perhaps most importantly, supermarket policies, which include:

• Supermarkets incentivize overproduction – By penalizing farmers when they run short of produce, supermarkets often incentivise overproduction but then often don’t take on gluts when there is a good year – supermarkets need to be more flexible and respond to seasonal gluts.

• Supermarkets regularly cosmetically out-grade farmer’s produce – rejecting produce that’s the wrong size, shape or appearance, but is perfectly nutritious and delicious to eat.

• Supermarkets sometimes change their orders at the last minute – dramatically reducing quantities from one week to the next – when they find a better deal with a different supplier The gleaning season is primarily from May to November, and the call goes out to recruit volunteers to get involved in gleaning days in their own region.

Locally, the Yorkshire Gleaners are looking to fight food waste and food poverty in Yorkshire, and connect with volunteers through Facebook. It is exclusively Yorkshire-based and works with a number of community organisations.

Gleaning has local and global benefits: to reduce food waste, fight food poverty, lower carbon emissions that lead to climate change, and build stronger local communities.

And, of course, it’s a way to people of all ages to get fresh air, exercise, and muddy boots.