This article was authored by Jessa Barnard (PHLIL), Sarah Schwartz and Maria Jones (ADMI). The article was originally published on Agrilinks on September 29, 2020, the first International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste.
Five months ago, we witnessed the phenomenon of American farmers dumping perfectly good fresh milk into manure pits and onions into ditches. A global pandemic sent our economy into a frenzy of shocks and changes to consumers’ purchasing power that hasn’t been seen in decades.
On this first observance of the International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste, the extraordinary set of compound shocks brought on by COVID-19 are challenging global food systems and have brought 20 years of United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) progress to a screeching halt. In the agriculture sector, smallholder farmers’ incomes are negatively impacted by a slowdown in the global economy: consumers have less money to buy food and markets aren’t bustling like they once were. Smallholder farmers are especially restricted in their ability to adapt, pivot, and shift operations in the face of a devastating pandemic. Disruptions related to the pandemic have driven up food loss, but even in a normal year, the loss of food signals that precious resources were wasted, opportunities for better nutrition have been lost, and undesirable pressure has been placed on natural resources used in food production.
How much food is actually lost or wasted in the global food system? The FAO reports that 13.8 percent of food produced worldwide in 2016 was lost from the farm level through the supply chain, excluding the retail stage. Losses occur all along the supply chain and include losses from practices applied at harvest and handling (such as proper drying, moisture management and storage), inability to access markets at the right time, transportation challenges, and other food system inefficiencies. Some commodities (roots, tubers, oil-bearing crops, fruits and vegetables) are estimated to suffer post-harvest losses greater than 25%. SDG Target 12.3 calls for halving per capital global food waste at retail and consumer levels by 2030 and reducing food loss (including post-harvest loss) along production and supply chains.
The pandemic has highlighted a complex set of issues that result in food loss and food waste, and are further exacerbated by climate change and natural disasters. Today we pause to consider how we might reduce the prevalence of food loss and waste for the benefit of the environment and the global population. To reduce food loss at scale, we need informed, innovative, and multi-sectoral solutions that enable efficient and resilient food systems and supply chains. Below we highlight solutions built upon partnerships spanning farmer engagement, research input, private sector buy-in, and government-level policy support.
First, we need informed solutions. We need to know where losses and waste occur in the food system in order to develop evidence-based interventions in the most impactful areas. Multiple databases and dashboards provide the latest comprehensive data. For example, in their new Food Loss and Waste Database, FAO conducted a meta-analysis of existing food loss and waste studies all over the world measuring loss and waste across food products, stages of the value chain, and geographical areas at different points in time.
Similarly, Johns Hopkins University and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition have developed the Food Systems Dashboard that combines data from multiple sources to help users visualize and understand a complete view of food systems across countries using over 150 indicators. The African Postharvest Losses Information System (APHLIS) supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the European Commission, has detailed information on postharvest losses of cereal grains in sub-Saharan Africa. In its latest phase, this interactive tool includes estimates of economic and nutritional dimensions of postharvest loss. Such data enables targeted technical assistance.
Secondly, we need innovative solutions. Despite evidence of the effectiveness of improved storage technologies in reducing postharvest losses, gaps in the value chain pose a major impediment to large-scale technology adoption and scaling. One example of an adapted innovation that helps resolve a break down in the cereals value chain comes from a partnership between the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for the Reduction of Post-Harvest Loss (PHLIL) and private sector partner Vestergaard, producer of the ZeroFly® hermetic storage bag.
Hermetic storage has long been recognized as a way to help farmers protect their grain from insects in an airtight, moisture-controlled bag. Recognizing the capacity for hermetic bags to reduce mycotoxin contamination in grain harvests, PHLIL set out to understand what market factors were inhibiting adoption of such successful technologies. Research in Ghana is pointing to training and distribution amongst women’s groups and via on-farm demonstrations as leading to an uptick in awareness of and demand for the technology. Simultaneously, Vestergaard noticed the demand for a micro-warehousing peer-to-peer platform so that smallholder farmers would have a safe, affordable place to store and trade their grain once harvested. Enter the innovative Chombo mobile app, a system designed for farmers to track their grain’s movement through the supply chain. Noting the successes of the women poultry farmers’ association, more Ghanaian smallholder farmers, including those in rural northern Ghana, are now recognizing how these technologies and investments can lead to reduced postharvest loss and increased profits.
Finally, we need multi-sectoral solutions. Large-scale coordinated solutions cannot come from any one sector alone, and joint solutions such as public-private partnerships (PPP) can build food systems resilience long term. PPPs are essential for advancing agriculture development to meet global food security challenges such as food loss and waste, while strengthening smallholders to engage profitably in commercial markets through access to appropriate technologies, financial services, and market information. PPPs can help link locally distributed yet fragmented individual/small-scale operations into large-scale coordinated market systems and create the enabling environment necessary for scaling.
Working with the ADM Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss, a PHLIL project in Bangladesh led by Dr. Monjurul Alam and Dr. Chayan Saha at Bangladesh Agricultural University (BAU) is utilizing multi-sectoral collaborations to develop, manufacture, promote and enable farmers to reduce post-harvest drying losses through the BAU-STR dyer. BAU has closely worked with numerous sectors and stakeholders including farmer organizations, local fabricators, NGOs, and the Bangladesh Ministry of Agriculture.
The BAU-STR dryer is a low cost, user friendly and energy efficient dryer manufactured in Bangladesh. BAU worked with farmer organizations to provide dryers, technical assistance, and train the trainer workshops. In partnership with the Bangladesh Department of Agricultural Extension’s (DAE) Integrated Agricultural Approach for Ensuring Nutrition and Food Security project, 184 farmer organizations in six districts each received a BAU-STR dryer. By the end of 2020, DAE plans to distribute 1,400 additional LPG fuel-source dryers. Furthermore, BAU invested in building the capacity of local fabricators, including Bhai Bhai Engineering and Kamal Machine Tools, to manufacture the dryers at scale for distribution to farmer organizations and other interested buyers. New designs for a 12-ton recirculating batch grain dryer are in development by BAU to cater to the needs of small-scale private rice millers, effectively improving their capacity to accept wet grain sold by smallholder farmers and remain commercially viable. This combination of research, design, training, and multi-sectoral partnerships has enabled BAU to advocate for policy changes, which resulted in the Government of Bangladesh announcing subsidies for the purchase of the BAU-STR dryer in the past year.
These stories are just a few of many delivering hope in the face of adversity, and optimism in the midst of some very uncertain times for our global food economy. A shared feature of these successes is that they are grounded in detailed information about the complex food system in which losses emerge; innovations that leverage different stages of the food system to enhance its functionality for the benefit of smallholders, and multi-sectoral partnerships that engage a range of food systems actors. While the challenges are clear, the opportunities for cooperation and collaboration are many.
Our post-harvest community call to mobilization is distinct: we must work together to sustain efforts that ensure worldwide food security by advancing the good work of reducing postharvest loss and food waste.
The USAID-funded Feed the Future Innovation Lab for the Reduction of Post-harvest Loss (PHLIL), led by Kansas State University, has been paving the way for effective research partnerships for the last seven years. The foundation by which PHLIL thrives is through its various strategic partnerships: universities around the globe, research institutions, private companies, and partner organizations. One of the lab’s key research partners is the ADM Institute for Prevention of Postharvest Loss (ADMI) at the University of Illinois.
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (2020). COVID-19: A Global Perspective. 2020 Goalkeepers Report. https://www.gatesfoundation.org/goalkeepers/downloads/2020-report/report_letter_en.pdf
FAO. (2019). The State of Food and Agriculture 2019. Moving forward on food loss and waste reduction. http://www.fao.org/3/ca6030en/ca6030en.pdfWorld Food Program USA blog. (2019) “8 facts to know about food waste and hunger”. https://www.wfpusa.org/articles/8-facts-to-know-about-food-waste-and-hunger/