The world’s population is increasing at a rate never seen before and is estimated to cross 9 billion by the year 2050. This will create an increasing demand for healthier food. According to the United Nations’ World Food Programme, there is enough food in the world today for everyone to lead a healthy and productive life. Despite this, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that one in nine people suffers from chronic undernourishment. Almost all of these people live in underdeveloped and developing countries with Sub-Saharan Africa accounting for the highest prevalence of hunger and malnourishment in any region in the world. The question, therefore, arises as to why hunger is still a relevant issue when the world’s farmers are producing enough food to supply every human on the planet.
Part of the answer lies in postharvest food loss
In the fight against global hunger, we often put more emphasis on improving pre-harvest crop production. However, there is an additional factor that aggravates food security – Postharvest Loss (PHL). PHL is a collective food loss along the production chain. It also translates into a waste of resources (land, water, and nutrients) invested in crop production, and includes food thrown away by consumers and retailers. According to the FAO, roughly one-third of the food produced is lost on the journey from farm to fork.
PHL occurs at different stages of the food chain in different geographies
While PHLs can occur at any stage of the food supply chain, the extent of it varies significantly between countries. In industrialized nations food is wasted to a great extent at the consumer level, meaning that it is thrown away even if it is suitable for human consumption. In underdeveloped and developing countries wastage of food usually occurs at the producer or farmer end of the supply chain. In these countries, harvesting is mostly carried out by hand due to lack of technologies. These manual harvesting methods contribute considerably towards loss in quantity (physical weight loss) and quality (edibility, consumer acceptance and nutritional quality) of crops, resulting in low level of yield per acre and less income for farmers. Other factors that can contribute to PHL include high crop perishability, inferior transportation, poor packaging and storage, fungal and bacterial contamination, and invasion by birds, rodents, and insects.
For example, let us consider the magnitude of PHLs for grains in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Grains are one of the most important food staples in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to a report by the World Bank, PHLs in SSA can reach nearly US$4 billion a year out of an annual value of grain production of US$27 billion. While there are solutions to reduce PHL, the adoption of these technologies in Africa has been low. This can be attributed to a perceived lack of economic incentives by farmers to reduce such losses. In the area of smallholder farming, this kind of perception seriously impairs the total earning capacity of farmers who live on the edge of food security.
One Planet MBA graduate from the University of Exeter, UK and International development professional with cross-functional experience in the area of environment, water, climate change, food security, sustainable agriculture, and natural resource management.
How to reduce PHL: Concerted collaborations and systemic interventions
Critical agricultural challenges such as PHLs can be better addressed when public-private or private-private partnerships are formed to create shared economic benefits for smallholders and stakeholders. In 2013 the Government of Ethiopia signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with DuPont and the U.S. Agency for International Development to help smallholders boost maize productivity and reduce post-harvest loss. This MoU serves as an indicator that a collective approach is required to root out food losses at each stage of the chain.In order to derive the most value out of such systemic interventions, governments, research bodies, input providers, distributors, retailers and other players should work collaboratively to impart best management practices to smallholders, develop more strong linkages between farmers and markets, improve storage and transportation, and support R&D of new technologies.
Strategic partnerships between large firms and technology start-ups should also be the order of the day for solving PHL issues. Exosect, a University of Southampton spin-off, has developed a wax-based technology called Entostat to deliver a fungal organism (Beauveria bassiana) to control pests in stored grains. In 2014 the company announced the submission of B. bassiana to the European Union regulatory authorities. Another start-up called Save Indian Grain. Org that describes itself as a social enterprise has designed galvanized steel farm bins customized to meet storage requirements and budgets of smallholders. These innovations when backed up by investment from venture capital firms and large companies have the potential to yield high social and economic returns.
In recent years a large number of papers have been published focusing on PHLs. Despite all that has been said about food wastage, there is now a clear need for concerted actions by different stakeholders to turn words into results. Only by adding value across the food chain can governments and businesses ensure profit maximization for farmers and sustainable food security for all.