From the Editor: Increasing food security by decreasing postharvest loss

by Arvin Donley
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A recent report from the Economic Research Service (ERS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that the world is making significant progress in addressing the issue of hunger. Food security is expected to improve through 2027, driven by forecasts for low food prices and rising incomes for 76 low- and middle-income countries that are former or current food-aid recipients, according to the ERS’s “International Food Security Assessment, 2017-2027” (see page 102 for related article).

In its report, the ERS projected the percentage of the population studied that is food insecure to fall to 8.9% in 2027 from 17.7% in 2017. If those projections hold true, that would be a huge victory in the fight against hunger. However, that still would leave 372 million food-insecure people in those 76 countries in 2027, falling well short of the ultimate goal.

When addressing the critical issue of trying to feed a fast-growing global population that is expected to soar from today’s 7.2 billion to nearly 10 billion by 2050, from an agricultural standpoint much of the discussion has always centered on the need to increase crop acreage and yield. And while major progress must be made in those areas, perhaps equally important is the need to reduce the alarming amount of global food waste that is occurring — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes per year (one-third of the world’s available food is lost post-harvest), according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

Interestingly, the FAO notes that the source of food waste is split nearly evenly in the supply chain between production, post-harvest handling and storage (54%) and the processing, distribution and consumption stages (46%).

The epicenter of waste in the early portion of the supply chain is in India, the second most populous country in the world behind China. In a 2016 report in the Times of India, it was noted that during the previous three years the Food Corporation of India (FCI) allowed 46,658 tonnes of food grain to rot in nearly 2,000 warehouses across the nation. The report said that amount of rotted grain could have fed 800,000 people. The problem is the FCI has an insufficient number of modern grain storage facilities so millions of tonnes of grain are stored in inadequate storage facilities or in outdoor piles, which leaves it vulnerable to moisture, rodents, birds and other pests.

And, of course, there are many other countries, particularly in Asia, Africa and South America, which lose thousands of tonnes of grain because it is stored in piles or is not cared for properly in storage silos.

The good news is that this issue is starting to be seriously addressed by organizations like the ADM Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss at the University of Illinois in Champaign, Illinois, U.S. This global institute, which was founded in 2011 with a $10 million grant from Illinois-based agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland Co., is working with smallholder farmers in the developing world to help preserve millions of tonnes of grains and oilseeds lost each year to pests, disease, mishandling and other factors.

A telling statistic, one which was pointed out by then-ADM CEO Patricia Woertz when the Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss opened its doors, is that only 5% of all agricultural research dollars go to the study of postharvest handling and infrastructure. In a world where about 800 million of its 7.3 billion inhabitants (1 in 9) are suffering from chronic malnutrition, according to the FAO, dedicating such a small percentage of money, comparatively speaking, toward preserving grain that is already harvested is unacceptable.

Unlike several of the highly complex and difficult to solve problems that contribute to hunger and malnutrition — namely war and displacement and extreme weather — preventing postharvest food loss involves a relatively simple and straightforward strategy that, among other things, includes greater financial support and education. Increasing funding for endeavors like the ADM Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss is a great place to start.