Raising Agrifood Yields is Not Enough to Achieve Global Food Security

Solving Hunger Through Post-Harvest Loss Reduction

People are still hungry. Despite decades of increasing agricultural yields in less-industrialized regions of the world, in large part thanks to the support from international agencies such as USAID, The Rockefeller Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, hunger persists. According to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, food production over the past five years has generally increased worldwide. We grow enough food to feed the world’s population. Why does food security remain so elusive? The answer to global hunger lies in the food supply chain—specifically in reducing the amount of food that rots or becomes contaminated before reaching consumers, or as it is otherwise known, “post-harvest loss.”

According to the FAO and USAID, up to 50 percent of all food produced in low-income countries is lost due to improper handling and storage. The magnitude of this loss is alarming, especially in light of increasing food insecurity due to population growth, forced migration, and climate change. Many populations now rely on food aid, originally intended for emergency famine relief. Rather than treating the symptoms of the problem, however, the long-term solution requires an intimate understanding of the issue at a systems level.

To keep pace with demand, farmers have traditionally been encouraged to increase crop and livestock yields. This is a destructive, unsustainable strategy. Increasing productivity to improve food security implies increasing land conversion and water use, raising important social and environmental tradeoffs. While expanding the amount of land under cultivation strains already limited resources in many countries, growing the size of livestock populations further deteriorates land with a compounded impact of greenhouse gas emissions on our shared atmosphere.

Upon closer examination, the weak link in the food supply chain is inadequate post-harvest storage. Could private sector investment provide the solution to this broad challenge? Could local governments and businesses create public-private partnerships to reduce this unnecessary loss of food?

Post-harvest loss has long been recognized as a serious, yet “solvable problem.” Consider these three stages in the supply chain to understand where interventions may be most effective:

  1. Harvest to Storage: Moving the harvest from field to intermediate storage is a critical stage influenced by weather, availability of labor, and transportation logistics. The timing of the harvest can be negatively influenced by economic or environmental factors that cause the crop to be harvested too early, or too late, to survive the trip to the consumer.

  1. Storage to Market: The location and proximity of adequate pre-market storage presents its own issues that can drastically reduce the amount of consumable food. Cold storage is rarely available in less-industrialized countries, where hot climates contribute to accelerated spoilage. This results in short storage life for meat, poultry, and fish, as well as most fruits and vegetables.
    Crops may be stored for an extended period of time due to factors such as weather and market prices. Inadequate storage attracts insects, mold, and rodents and is the most common cause of losses.  Theft can also be a factor, when crops are kept in unsecured locations. The storage stage is where the most food is lost, therefore it is the key to reducing overall post-harvest losses.

  1. Market to Consumer: Transportation and market factors play a critical role in the final stage of the supply chain. If the market destination is far from the storage site, transportation, heat, and pests will continue to be negative factors. Handling prior to sale to consumers raises the issue of food safety. Food that has degraded during the journey from the field to the market is often discarded by the vendor as unsalable waste. If food goes unsold at the market due to its poor condition, it is also discarded, while spoiled food that is consumed can lead to a variety of human illnesses.

At every stage in the journey from field to fork, heat, pests, and improper handling cause losses. Updating traditional, unsophisticated storage and handling methods will result in an increase in available food for distribution and consumption.

At every stage in the journey from field to fork, heat, pests, and improper handling cause losses. Updating traditional, unsophisticated storage and handling methods will result in an increase in available food for distribution and consumption.

Storage to the (Food) Rescue
Building regional storage facilities to improve pre-market storage is among the most promising strategies to reduce post-harvest losses. The technology exists and advanced agricultural economies have demonstrated the efficacy of constructing modular storage and silo facilities. The same model is necessary in less-developed countries where eliminating food loss translates to sparing millions of people from hunger, disease, and hardship.

The supply chain for agricultural commodities can be greatly improved through training and a financial investment from the growing social impact investment sector. Social impact investors choose to financially support enterprises that produce both a market rate return and a social benefit. Among impact investors, this is known as the “double bottom line.” Add environmental benefits to the equation and investors receive the trifecta of desired outcomes—the triple bottom line return on investment!

Presently, very few private sector projects address crop storage and distribution because businesses are reluctant to invest in the agricultural sector in low-income countries. De-risking these investment opportunities is key to their acceptance and success. Development Impact Bonds (DIB) are a new, structured financing tool that creates a public-private sector opportunity for investors to limit risk exposure. DIBs may provide the missing link in the creation of successful regional storage networks for agricultural commodities. Modernized storage facilities represent a potentially profitable value chain solution that is starting to attract the attention of investors in the agricultural sector.

Public sector support for private investment in better storage technology is the logical solution. Impact investors will recognize the appeal of supporting storage projects when market rate returns are demonstrated, while improving smallholder farmer livelihoods and community resilience. Correcting the problem of post-harvest waste could end hunger in our lifetimes.

This article is part of a series on “solvable problems” within the context of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The Global Engagement Forum: Live takes place this October 10–11, 2018, bringing together leaders from across the private, public, and social sectors to co-create solutions and partnerships to address four urgent, yet solvable problems—
closing the skills gap in STEM, reducing post-harvest food loss, ending energy poverty, and eliminating marine debris and ocean plastics. Learn more about the Forum here.

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