Reflections on ADMI’s 10-year anniversary

By Dr. Robert Easter, President Emeritus of the University of Illinois and former chairman of the ADMI External Advisory Board

Photo of author, Dr. Robert Easter

In a very real sense, effective storage of harvested foodstuffs has perplexed humanity throughout recorded history. Babylonian records as early as the 22nd century BC describe rudimentary storage systems. The problem is complex and throughout history a myriad of strategies has been employed with varying degrees of success. 

At a macro level, the products involved can be described in three categories: fresh fruits and vegetables, animal products, i.e., meat, milk and eggs and grains, and oilseeds. The ADM Institute is principally focused on the major grains – i.e., wheat, maize, and rice – that serve globally as a primary source of calories for the human population. Likewise, there are three principal challenges: removal of moisture to prevent subsequent damage by fungi and microbes; provision of protective storage containers ranging from bags and clay pots to massive silos, and management of the grain during storage to prevent reintroduction of excess moisture and invasion by pests such as insects and rodents. 

Across the world, potential solutions vary most significantly based on access to resources and that has not changed during the past decade. Massive post-harvest dryers heated by fossil fuels are simply not feasible in resource-constrained economies. Neither are large silos equipped with sensors that monitor changes in grain condition during storage. Progress has been made on development of small-scale, village-level dryers that can be fueled by grass and other local available plant materials. And solar panels can be employed provide the electricity needed for small fans used in these driers to facilitate drying. One-hundred-kilogram storage bags made with materials resistant to insect and rodent penetration have been field tested with good results. And, perhaps undervalued, has been the development of a website that provides a global platform for exchange of ideas and experiences that accelerate progress to solutions. 

In some countries, Bangladesh for example, governments, with international funding agency support, have invested in large storage facilities that function like banks and are made available to smallholder farmers. The producer is then able to deposit grain at harvest and withdraw as needed. Progress is being made, and the ADM Institute has been a key global leader in each of these areas.

With limited arable lands remaining for expansion crop production and the anticipated growth in the planetary population by up to 2 billion people by 2050, it is inevitable that there will be significant pressure to prevent loss post-harvest loss of foodstuffs. Gains that have been made in recent years will be challenged by increasing cost and declining availability of fossil fuels in wealthy as well as poor nations. This will likely bring attention back to strategies that were being explored during the energy crisis of the 1970s. 

It is also possible that alternatives to drying (use of solar radiation to heat air, anaerobic storage in situations where that is feasible and preservatives) will once again be investigated. Because of the importance of scale to application of technology, decisionmakers may use policy tools to incentivize increased investment in large scale storage systems that can serve many clients at a village or multi-village level. All of this will be complicated by the dearth of support for education and research support in this area critical to the long-term sustainability of human life.

Read more about ADMI’s 10th anniversary in our 10-year report

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