ROME, ITALY — Investing in post-harvest technologies to reduce food losses could significantly increase the food supply in sub-Saharan Africa, according to a new FAO/World Bank report released on May 31 as technical experts from around the region meet to discuss the issue.

The report, “Missing Food: The Case of Postharvest Grain Losses in Sub-Saharan Africa,” produced in collaboration with the U.K.'s Natural Resources Institute, estimates the value of post-harvest grain losses in sub-Saharan Africa at around $4 billion a year.

"This lost food could meet the minimum annual food requirements of at least 48 million people," said FAO Assistant Director-General Maria Helena Semedo. "If we agree that sustainable agricultural systems need to be developed to feed 9 billion people by 2050, addressing waste across the entire food chain must be a critical pillar of future national food strategies."

According to estimates provided by the African Postharvest Losses Information System, physical grain losses prior to processing can range from 10% to 20%.

In Eastern and Southern Africa alone, food losses are valued at $1.6 billion per year, or about 13.5% of the total value of grain production.

While no similar regional loss estimates are available for Central or West Africa, assuming losses of a similar magnitude, the value of post-harvest grain losses in sub-Saharan Africa could total $4 billion a year out of an estimated annual grain production worth $27 billion (2005-2007 annual average).

This is roughly equivalent to the value of annual cereal imports in the region during the same period. Given the near doubling of global grain prices since 2005-2007, the value of current losses is likely much higher.

Losses occur when grain decays or is infested by pests, fungi or microbes, and physical losses are only part of the equation. Losses can also be economic, resulting from low prices and lack of access to markets for poor quality grain, or nutritional, arising from poor quality or contaminated food.

Food losses contribute to high food prices by removing part of the food supply from the market. They also have negative environmental impacts as land, water and non-renewable resources such as fertilizer and energy are used to produce, process, handle and transport food that no one consumes.

The recent food and financial crises have heightened the focus on post-harvest losses.

"Africa cannot afford to lose 20% of its grain production," said Jamal Saghir, director of the Sustainable Development Department, World Bank Africa Region.

"Reducing food losses is increasingly recognized as part of an integrated approach to realizing agriculture's full potential, along with making effective use of today's crops, improving productivity on existing farmland, and sustainably bringing additional acreage into production."

A variety of practices and technologies are available for reducing post-harvest losses, including crop protectants and storage containers such as hermetically sealed bags and metallic silos.

While a number of these technologies have proved successful in Asia, more research and piloting is needed to identify interventions adapted to local environments in Africa.

To succeed, interventions must be sensitive to local conditions and practices, be viewed within a value chain lens, and ensure that appropriate economic incentives are in place.

Technologies that have taken off in Asia, such as small-scale rice-drying technology and the introduction of pedal threshers and rice mills, have had successful adoption in some parts of Africa and may become more even more accepted as migration, aging farming populations, and high rates of HIV/AIDS infection reduce available labor and raise wages.

Governments can help by creating an enabling environment; reducing market transaction costs by investing in infrastructure such as roads, electricity and water; and strengthening agricultural research and extension, particularly in identifying where losses occur along the food chain and how to tackle them.