The Food Industry’s Fight to Feed the World Should Start with Post-Harvest Loss
Do you remember the last time you were hungry? Truly hungry. Maybe you’re like me and most of the time food is an alluring vice. It’s a great source of comfort and a relief from the humdrum, a celebration of all that’s good. A good meal is something that can make even the most challenging of days fade into your mind’s backwaters, but the next visit to the doctor’s office shows unwelcome contributions to the bottom (or waist) line.
Maybe you get “hangry” late in the afternoon on a day when lunch doesn’t materialize. You lose concentration, resulting in your offending colleagues or family members, and reduced productivity. Imagine a day like that ending not with leftover take-away, but instead with a sleepless night spent comforting crying, hungry children.
My work is focused on finding ways for people to earn money with meaningful work and for small companies to win business from large multinational ones. I don’t often associate my performance metrics with people’s caloric intake. But as I’ve come to understand the complexities of post-harvest loss—the devastating effect of food lost after harvest—I’ve realized that addressing this challenge is also one of the greatest opportunities facing the food industry worldwide.
There Is Plenty of Food to Feed the Planet
Fifteen years ago, the Millennium Development Goals committed governments and aid agencies to halving the number of people who are hungry by 2015. As with many MDGs, progress was made. But most of those improvements occurred in countries like India and China, where rapid economic advancement lifted millions into the middle class.
In the world’s least developed countries, the story is not so promising. Today, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that about 1 billion people suffer from chronic hunger. Many more are malnourished. Confronted with a need to feed the hungry, it seems natural to focus on increasing the volume of food production, which aid agencies, multilateral institutions, and private funders have worked in concert to do. Almost 95 percent of all spending on food security is focused on improving cultivation, enhancing productivity, and providing extension services to improve farmers’ capacity to grow and harvest more. The development community is trying to grow its way out of a hunger problem.
But such widespread hunger is not caused by a shortage of food. The world already produces more than enough food to feed every person on earth.
Food Is Rotting Before It Gets to the Table
Tragically, much of that production—50 percent of all fruits and vegetables, 40 percent of roots and tubers, and 20 percent of all cereals—is lost in substandard storage or transit, or left on the farm, in what is called post-harvest loss. And those staggering statistics do not even take into account what is wasted on the plate or tossed away by consumers, nor the waste of water, land, fertilizer, labor, and other inputs that went into food production.
The impact of post-harvest loss on food security has historically received scant attention; donor focus has waxed and waned. In the 1970s, the food crisis helped to put some focus on mitigating loss in the post-harvest value chain. But as commodity prices began to improve, attention returned to economic and technology-based fixes for enhancing agricultural productivity.
Luckily, that’s beginning to change. Organizations like the Rockefeller and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations are investing more in understanding the impact of post-harvest loss and seeking innovative solutions to the problem that are driven by the private sector. Multinational corporations, including Unilever, Coca-Cola, and SAB Miller, have also implemented programs to address the issue.
Multinational companies can play an essential role in transforming post-harvest loss into food security for the most needy. They can provide a ready market for produce, contribute to improved agricultural practices to ensure good quality, and adjust product offerings to take advantage of local crops prone to heavy loss and waste. To date, the power of multinationals to address food loss has been best demonstrated in the beverage industry. SAB Miller, Africa’s leading beer producer, replaced barley with cassava to make Eagle beer in Ghana and Impala beer in Mozambique, taking advantage of the presence of a local commodity rather than using a grain that was not domestically grown. In both cases, the SAB Miller adjustment sought to create a market advantage from a high-loss crop. Similarly, Coca-Cola’s Kenya operation has started to use mango, an underutilized crop prone to high losses, for its juice production.
Reducing crop loss to make beer and juice are hardly examples of creating food security. Yet, these innovative, market-based approaches can provide insight into reducing the loss of staples and high-nutrition crops. Engaging the private sector in the fight against post-harvest loss is exactly what is needed.
Innovation Is Needed on Market Linkages and Distribution, Not Production or Storage
Alleviating post-harvest loss requires reevaluating existing markets for agricultural products, such as hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, retailers, and processors. While they already handle a lot of produce in any given country, they could do more to utilize local foods in ways customers will buy and consume. For example in Nigeria, more than fifty percent of the tomatoes harvested are lost every year post-harvest. Yet many Nigerian hotels and supermarkets import nearly half of their fresh tomatoes from other African countries like South Africa and Benin, even though domestic production can currently meet close to 75 percent of domestic demand. What’s more, the country spends close to $100 million annually on tomato paste imports.
Unfortunately, the inability to connect producers with consumers exists across a number of crops in many other countries as well. Connecting farmers to new markets is a critical part of reducing waste and spoilage, while selling to multiple outlets also reduces a farmer’s market risk. A market-led approach, by definition, means identifying consumer needs and seeking to profitably meet those demands. Historically, market-driven food security interventions have looked only at primary markets or those driven by large, multinational food and beverage companies, without much consideration for smaller, alternative outlets. A focus on what are sometimes referred to as “secondary markets” and harnessing them to provide quality, nutritious food could make all of the difference in reducing loss and spoilage in the value chain.
For instance, in the mangos-for-juice example above, smaller processors could invest in equipment to dry mangoes. While Coca Cola is buying mangos in bulk, it is unlikely that all mangos produced will meet their quality standards, or there may simply be more than Coca Cola needs. Local processors can take advantage of this abundance by purchasing from farmers who would otherwise lose those crops to spoilage and in turn deliver highly nutritious food to consumers, which results in a win for all stakeholders. Coca Cola has a reliable supply of mangos, farmers benefit from a ready and relatively stable market for all their produce at the time of harvest; the local processors generate jobs and profits, and the community has access to nutritious dried fruit.
In fact, without a way to deal effectively with abundance, a large buyer of produce can actually make the problem of waste worse. By encouraging greater production without an ensured demand for the produce, many market-led interventions in post-harvest loss have actually exacerbated the problem, a classic case of “unintended consequences.”
A second critical focus area for food loss is storage. According to a study from the World Food Programme that reviewed maize production and storage in Uganda in 2013 to 2014, after 90 days of storage, 60 percent of all maize traditionally stored in granary or polypropylene bags had spoiled. In comparison, maize stored using five different new storage technologies (metallic silos, plastic silos, super grain bags, zero fly bags and grain safes) experienced negligible spoilage. Appropriate technologies exist, and they are all relatively low cost, particularly when compared with the cost of food loss, and yet they are rarely deployed.
In other words, two misconceptions seem to waylay efforts to address the global food crisis: the first is the idea that we need massive amounts of additional food production; the second is that we need to innovate for better storage to reduce spoilage. There is enough food grown every year to feed our growing planet, and cost-effective, tested technologies are readily available to improve storage. It’s time to put them to work, and focus our innovation effort on how best to get that saved food into the hands of the hungry.
Is it possible to end world hunger in 15 years? That’s Sustainable Development Goal 2, set to be ratified by the United Nations in September. Recent research into the scope of the loss and spoilage issues confronting agricultural value chains suggests all the pieces exist to achieve this lofty goal; they just need to be put in place. If 98 percent of the world’s hungry people reside in developing countries, and most of the food lost between field and table occurs in these same places, it seems only logical to focus on saving food that is already being produced, rather than producing more.
This is a relatively simple statement, not to be confused with an easy solution. Challenges in infrastructure, logistics, market access and information, food processing practices, access to finance, and technology plague the food value chains around the world. However, engaging the private sector to address this challenge holds enormous promise. When coupled with secondary market considerations, multinational interventions have the potential to move the needle on world hunger. By recouping the more than 30 percent of food lost every year around the world, perhaps those one billion people suffering from chronic hunger can instead experience the joy of going to bed well fed.
There is enough food grown every year to feed our growing planet, and cost-effective, tested technologies are readily available to improve storage. It’s time to put them to work, and focus our innovation effort on how best to get that saved food into the hands of the hungry.