Food Systems Perspectives in Policy to Address Postharvest Losses

Food Systems Perspectives in Policy to Address Postharvest Losses

By Bradley Brinkley, Global Food Security Fellow, ADM Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss

The ADMI approach to postharvest loss is to consider the entire food system. Research tells us that postharvest losses do not occur in a vacuum – food loss at one stage of the value chain may reflect failures and potential interventions elsewhere in the chain. Similarly, local and national policies can influence the actions of smallholder farmers and other actors in the value chain, thereby causing losses or improvements.

Our 10-year webinar series, “Reducing PHL: A Food Systems Approach”, focused on the food systems concept by examining concepts that can have impact throughout the postharvest value chain: implementing technical solutions, building capacity within institutions and groups of people, and finally, influencing state and national policies that govern food systems.

“Food Systems Perspectives in Policy to Address Postharvest Losses”, the final webinar in the series, focused on information that can make a difference in informing policy decisions. Three leaders from institutions focused on data for postharvest management emphasized that postharvest losses reduce smallholder farmers’ profits, nutritional availability, and increase greenhouse gases. All reiterated that accurate data has the power to both improve intervention practices and create valuable policy.

Postharvest Loss Data Collection

Missing data can lead to failed policy and intervention projects. Researchers have repeatedly found that farmers throughout the world assume that losses are inevitable, just a cost of doing business. Panelists Dr. Tanya Stathers, leader of the African Postharvest Losses Information System (APHLIS) project, and Dr. Kathy Baylis, professor at University of California Santa Barbara, found that farmers generally underestimate crop losses. Baylis’ research on the benefits of hermetic storage in the state of Bihar, India, indicated that measured losses accounted for 14-15% of harvests, but farmers self-reported 2-3%. Identifying the difference between assumed and actual losses can help bridge the gap between traditional and sustainable practices. Baylis’ research found that in addition to reducing quantity losses, hermetic storage improved the quality of the grain, dramatically reducing incidences of aflatoxin and insect damage. Data of this type can help policy makers and implementers promote practices to minimize farming losses.

Contextualize Data for Change Makers

To gather data, Stathers uses the Food Systems Framework to identify specific areas where losses are occurring. Guided by UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12.3 and Malabo Declaration 3.3, the APHLIS team culls academic research and scientific data and contextualizes that data for practitioners and policymakers. She stressed that regional variability, such as seasonal and farming practice differences, need to be accounted for. With the help of an algorithm, the APHLIS team categorizes the data into different sets and creates regional maps. Stathers has found that displaying the losses by unconventional methods, such as weight, monetary value, calories or nutrients lost has helped policy makers interpret the data.

 Stathers was also part of a group of researchers who scrutinized postharvest interventions for small-scale farmers and examined which methods were successful. Part of the Ceres2030 project, they published their scoping review of interventions in a 2020 Nature article. Their project culled 13,000 studies down to 334 that fell within their inclusion criteria. Most data was collected in India and pockets of Africa, leaving some countries without valuable research. The team categorized the data by intervention type and stage. They found that 90% of interventions were technology that focused on drying. Moreover, the team looked at success rates for each crop and emphasized which technologies are ready for scale. Finally, she stressed the need to expand the range of researched crops, look beyond storage activities, identify other key players in the food system, and create appropriate interventions for each stage. A complete list of the studies included in the scoping review is available at

Data Can Influence Outdated Policy

Dr. Ashok Gulati, Infosys professor at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), discussed how regional data influences national policy. He discussed two surveys from 2012 and 2015 which aggregated postharvest losses in India across multiple commodities. He added, however, that a farmer in the state of Punjab is more likely to use mechanization than a rural farmer in West Bengal or Bihar, which can lead to differences in postharvest loss. Additionally, land size differences influence farmers’ profits and access to credit. Unequal access to resources creates an opportunity for an uberization of farm machinery for rural farmers.

Gulati also explained how improved data can lead to the retirement of outdated policies. The Essential Commodities Act of India is designed to limit monopolization and grain hoarding, but in practice has led to a decrease in farming profits by discouraging storage options. Additionally, the Jute Packing Material Act requires that certain commodities be packed in jute storage bags. A cost-benefit analysis from Baylis shows that hermetic storage improves availability, access, utilization, and stability. A hermetic bag can pay for itself in one season for maize, and two seasons for rice and wheat. To accommodate the requirement for jute bags, some Indian farmers will place their hermetic storage bags inside a jute bag. Gulati emphasized that policy needs to be updated to incentivize better techniques that will reduce losses for farmers.

Future policy impacts

Countries are starting to create objectives guided by the UN SDGs that focus on sustainability and welfare. By framing postharvest loss as a hindrance to nutrition availability, planetary resources, and economic resources, accurate data can incentivize countries to address the problem of PHL.

Using the Food Systems Framework to contextualize data, as shown by Stathers, can create a powerful visualization for where intervention needs to occur. Furthermore, Baylis argued that data confirms hermetic storage bags as economically viable and greatly beneficial for both farmers and the larger value chain. Gulati emphasized how regional variabilities in farming practices can create different levels of postharvest loss. Comprehending these differences can help leaders retire outdated policies, and guide new policies to be more encompassing. Overall, gathering accurate and regionally specific data benefits farmers, the food value chain, and sustainability goals.

Visit our Webinars page to access speaker presentations and a complete recording of all the webinars in the series.

Bradley Brinkley is a senior in agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Global Food Security Fellow working with the ADM Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss.

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