The global postharvest startup

The global postharvest startup

by Nigel Banks, Postharvest.Co Limited, New Zealand

This post is part of the ADM Institute’s #PreventPHL blog campaign, following up on the First International Congress on Postharvest Loss Prevention. To read more posts in the series, click here.

OK, we’ve finally woken up with a bump to realise that we have a short window to avoid massive climate change and destabilising food insecurity. That’s good; hopefully just in time!

Now to fix up the mess…… fortunately, it’s a simple problem! At least, it is when viewed at the whole planet level. Of course, complex solutions will be required on many fronts but a simple view of the planet-level building blocks of the strategy is very helpful.
Banks 1Historically, four groups in our global community (Fig. 1a) have not shared a common view:

  • Consumers, the stomachs of our food supply systems, have not been delivered enough nourishment and enjoyment for a low enough price.
  • Deliverers, the arms and legs of our supply systems, have been struggling with insufficient knowledge and other resources. As a result, we have had uncontrollably variable and shamefully high levels of losses across the past five decades.
  • Investors, facility and brand owners in our supply systems and governments, have had little incentive to track towards genuine sustainability because the cash return on investment on tackling postharvest losses doesn’t meet historical governance priorities.
  • Leaders and innovators, change agents in our supply systems, have failed to get buy-in on improved practice because there is insufficient recognition of the value of change.

With the occupants of all four corners of our community operating with a scarcity paradigm that keeps them well separated, lacking a shared aspirational “heart”, it has looked all but impossible the fix the challenge of postharvest losses. And with a 25% explosion of population on the cards for 2050, the scope for disagreement has looked set to grow.

But vision is a powerful thing and the simplifying, all-embracing, completely overwhelming vision that will create absolute empathy among all of these groups is about to race towards us across the horizon (see sneak peak comparing current (white) and future (green / purple) focus in Fig. 1b). Editor’s note: The text under the white box reads, My team needs more.

Viewed through this new lens, measured in our new currency (air to breathe in place of money in the bank), there will shortly be a completely shared interest in reducing postharvest losses (Fig. 1c).

Instantaneously, we have a global strategic plan with vision, mission and values clearly defined. More good! So now the minor matter of the operational strategy ….

Banks 2Getting to zero postharvest loss will take a significant chunk of time, measured against the amount of time we have available. It really is quite a large problem and working up the solution will begin with baby steps: we are virtually in total startup mode. And in line with the lean startup movement, we can expect our own journey to comprise many steps, each one the turn of a cycle: a BUILD, MEASURE, LEARN loop (Fig. 2a).
Apart from conflicting motivations for groups in our community, the reason we have struggled to get this to work historically is that we have often failed to implement systems that can learn. We have worked with individuals, parties, actors who, besides lacking a shared “heart” also have no central system that functions like a “brain” to learn and works in an integrated way to implement what it learns. So, in addition to the community that provides the “why” for all that we will seek to do to reduce postharvest losses, we need a “how” – a system that will build, measure and learn its way to actually reducing postharvest losses. Having a system that enables us to innovate effectively is actually more critical to our global postharvest startup than starting out with the best ideas. Better ideas emerge readily with repeated learning cycles. Without a learning system, potential learning experiences are completely wasted on us.

Of course, the thing about starting with baby steps is that the first years are going to deliver painfully little tangible improvement. Far from achieving a large reduction by 2020 as many at the conference seemed to believe possible (Fig. 2b), we are much more likely to reach 2020 with virtually no visible improvement in performance (Fig. 2c). But we COULD approach substantial reduction by just 2030. By that time, we could well be steaming through the improvements and at large scale. We would then power through conference expectations of reductions in postharvest losses by 2050 and ease towards zero losses a few decades later, with our children’s grandchildren’s futures looking more rosy and less toasty.

So it is going to be easy; we just need:

  • A global food system heart that will deliver us the “why”: the shared vision, mission and values for all stakeholders
  • A global food system brain built of a thousand, million BUILD – MEASURE – LEARN loops, each of which works locally and, when integrated together, delivers us the “how”.


The blog entries in this #PreventPHL series are by students and members of the PHL Prevention community of practice. The opinions expressed are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the ADM Institute. In addition, none of the statements should be considered an endorsement of any person, product, or technique by the ADM Institute.

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