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Forty Percent of Food Harvests Are Lost

Innovations for Food Preservation and Waste Prevention


Sun-drying in Madagascar—a healthy way to prevent food waste.  ©Flickr/Jean-Louis Vandevivère (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Sun-drying in Madagascar—a healthy way to prevent food waste. ©Flickr/Jean-Louis Vandevivère (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Every year, the world’s farmers and other food producers provide a prodigious amount of food for humanity—around 4 billion metric tons.


But out of that bounty, a stunning one-third—or 1.3 billion metric tons—is estimated to be lost due to production-to-processing problems and wasteful discarding of consumable foods, says the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).


Thus, the safe preservation and reliable distribution of food are essential tasks to resolve world hunger and food insecurity. Focusing on what it takes to protect food from waste and loss, including greater investment in locally appropriate practices and improved storage policies, will help make sure that food gets to people who need it the most.


The Dimensions of Food Waste


In developing countries, 40% of harvests never reach people’s stomachs, says the FAO. In sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the developing world, equal proportions of food are lost because of poor infrastructure, pests, and disease.


Food loss and waste tend to be insidious—a little bit is lost in the field; a little bit is lost in storage; a little is lost in transport; and finally, a small percent is lost at home.


In industrialized countries, the latter is the larger issue: In the United States, for instance, as much as one-half of consumable food is thrown away. This is because people buy too much, misjudge expiration and “sell by” dates, and deem too much produce to be “blemished;” and there is massive “plate waste,” in which people in homes, hospitals, schools, restaurants, and nursing facilities discard food that has been served to them.


Food loss is a major reason 1 in 10 people in the world are malnourished, says the World Resources Institute.

Food loss is a major reason 1 in 10 people in the world are malnourished, says the World Resources Institute.


Inexpensive Techniques Prevent Food Loss and Waste


The good news is that preventing food loss and waste can be simple and inexpensive. For instance, the World Vegetable Center has research centers across sub-Saharan Africa devoted to finding ways to breed vegetables for taste and resilience—and helping farmers figure out how to keep those crops from going to waste.


Women smallholder farmers in Kenya. ©McKay Savage/Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)
Women smallholder farmers in Kenya. ©McKay Savage/Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

According to estimates from the World Vegetable Center, more than half of fruits and vegetables, around half of roots and tubers, and almost a third of oilseeds and pulses in Africa are lost post-harvest. In Bamako, Mali, researchers at the local World Vegetable Center office are working with farmers to develop preservation techniques to make vegetables available year-round and transform them in the ways women want and need. Okra powder, for example, is commonly used in Mali for sauces.


Zambia—Dried okra leaves (bottom), pods (right).  ©Jack Gusha Dumingu/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Zambia—Dried okra leaves (bottom), pods (right). ©Jack Gusha Dumingu/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The World Vegetable Center is also working with women farmers to develop recipes to make greater use of vegetable products. As these powders and dried vegetables become more available year-round, they can combat micronutrient deficiencies while also providing an extra source of income.


Drying mangoes prevents this nutrient-rich fruit from being wasted.  ©Filo gèn'/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Drying mangoes prevents this nutrient-rich fruit from being wasted. ©Filo gèn'/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The same is true for preserving fruits like mangoes that have abundant but short growing seasons.

As these powders and dried vegetables become more available year-round, they can combat micronutrient deficiencies while also providing an extra source of income.


Dried mangoes   ©Adrian Michael/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Dried mangoes ©Adrian Michael/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In Burkina Faso, for example, an entrepreneur named Christiane Coulibaly started a mango-drying business in 2008 with help from a project funded by the World Bank. As of February 2020, she had expanded her workforce to a dozen employees and nearly 500 seasonal workers, most of whom were women.


Her business is also providing an incredible nutritional resource. Mangoes are often the only source of vitamin A in local communities.


In fishing communities in The Gambia and other coastal areas, women are also drying fish, providing an inexpensive and important source of protein throughout the year.


Storage Makes a Difference

Burkina Faso—Cooling produce with a zeer pot.  ©Peter Rinker/ Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Burkina Faso—Cooling produce with a zeer pot. ©Peter Rinker/ Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Carefully designed and executed storage systems that use locally sourced materials can help farmers protect their crops. These include solar dryers and zeer pots that use evaporation to cool foods, and “mud silos,” or storehouses made of mudbrick and wood, to reduce losses of grain and other foods.


A new technology has been introduced by Apeel Sciences. The company has developed an invisible, edible skin, which is applied postharvest, that acts as a second peel to protect and preserve crops like apples and avocadoes.


Grains and pulses are at high risk from a variety of storage hazards, such as rats and other vermin, fungi, and toxins. The organization One Acre Fund is helping farmers improve their storage techniques for maize crops by tracking what they are growing and how much is lost.


The farmers can use simple tracking sheets—literally using pencil and paper—to see how much they grow and how much is saved from each season. The sheets let the farmers understand how to adjust their storage use so that they lose as little product, nutrition, and income as possible.


Good Nature Agro, an organization that works in Chipata, Zambia, is creating a network of farmer-led extension workers who attend agronomy courses. In addition to learning about new growing practices, students study harvesting and storage techniques.


“Silo bags” provide cost-effective crop storage.  ©DMahalko/Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0)
“Silo bags” provide cost-effective crop storage. ©DMahalko/Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0)

This organization is also helping farmers use hermetic storage products, like Purdue Improved Crop Storage (PICS) bags, which were developed several decades ago in Cameroon by Purdue University researchers and partners.


PICS bags are a simple and cost-effective way of storing grain and seed without using chemicals to control insects. A typical bag holds about 50 kilograms (110 pounds) and has three layers—two liners fitted inside a woven sack. The bags allow farmers to store a variety of legume and cereal crops for more than a year after harvest. That enables farmers to preserve their crop for household consumption or wait for higher market prices.


Infrastructure to Prevent Loss and Waste


Infrastructure is a vital part of the solution for food loss and waste.


Infrastructure means secure, reliable, and well-maintained roads and bridges as well as rail and port systems. Transportation routes are critically needed in rural, sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia to link fields to markets. Food that rots in transit does not get sold or eaten.


Dirt road in rural Rwanda.  ©CIAT/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Dirt road in rural Rwanda. ©CIAT/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Poor market systems also lead to large food losses in developing countries.


There are not many wholesale, supermarket, and retail facilities that can provide adequate storage for food when it is ready for market. In addition, markets in developing countries are often lacking sanitary conditions or cooling equipment.


Poor market systems also lead to large food losses in developing countries. There are not many wholesale, supermarket, and retail facilities that can provide adequate storage.

Investment in alternative forms of refrigeration is part of the solution. It may not be realistic to expect developing countries to have refrigeration systems like those in wealthy countries, but developing countries may have the opportunity to leapfrog and develop more energy-efficient systems.


For example, investment in solar-powered refrigeration systems and evaporative cooling systems should reduce food loss due to rotting. Having insulated on-farm buildings to keep crops cool before shipment can also help maintain the quality of crops. There is growing global interest and investment in climate-friendly cooling and cold chain systems.


Food Waste in Wealthy Nations


Food waste and loss are not just issues for developing countries.


In the Global North and other industrialized nations, food waste occurs for a variety of reasons—cosmetic standards; confusing “sell by,” “use by,” and expiration dates; oversized portions; consumer expectations; perceptions of abundance by retailers and restaurants; and perhaps most important, the low value placed on food because it tends to be inexpensive and plentiful.


Food waste happens in the Global North for a variety of reasons—cosmetic standards, confusing sell by, use by, and expiration dates, oversized portions, [and] consumer expectations…

In the US, the Food Recovery Network (FRN) recovers food from events on and off college campuses. The student-led organization has recovered and donated millions of pounds of food that otherwise would have gone to waste, corresponding to more than 3.2 million meals that have gone to those in need. Their work has diverted food waste from landfills, thus preventing more than 6.8 million pounds of carbon dioxide from reaching the atmosphere.


Tapping the Power of New Technologies


Fortunately, new technologies are enabling many companies to make tremendous strides in preventing food waste.


For example, Winnow Solutions is cutting food waste in hospitality and food services in more than forty countries by using the power of artificial intelligence.


The system takes photographs of wasted food as it is thrown away, and using the images, the machine trains itself to recognize what has been thrown in the bin. This technology helps commercial chefs and kitchen staff track food waste and guides them on how to adjust their menus and food servings for efficiency.


Winnow Solutions estimates that each year it has saved more than $32 million for food service, diverted more than 36 million meals from the bin, and saved about 61,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.


Well-intentioned "Best before" tags can lead to food waste.  ©Brandon Dilbeck/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Well-intentioned "Best before" tags can lead to food waste. ©Brandon Dilbeck/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Meanwhile, in Nigeria, software engineer Oscar Ekponimo has developed an app called Chowberry that connects bargain-hunting consumers to supermarket foods that would ordinarily end up in the trash.


Retailers use the Chowberry app to scan the barcodes of food products. The app informs them when these products have reached their “best before” date and automatically offers the items for sale at a reduced price via the app and the accompanying website.


As products near their latest possible selling date, their prices fall. As a result, consumers have access to affordable products, and retailers end up saving money because they throw away much less food.


Ekponimo understands that low-income people may not have smartphones to use the app. So, his company also works with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to connect Chowberry to a larger group of people who purchase and distribute the lower-cost food as part of their own outreach projects.


Better Policies, Less Waste


Governments are also tackling food loss and waste.


In 2018, for example, Australia became the first country to set a target to reduce the amount of food waste it generates by 50% by 2030. The financial cost of food waste to the Australian economy is currently estimated to be $20 billion per year.


Australia became the first country to set a target to reduce the amount of food waste it generates by 50% by 2030.

To achieve its food waste target, the Australian government decided to invest $1.2 million over two years to support food rescue organizations, including Second Bite, FareShare, OzHarvest, and Food Bank Australia.


In 2016, France became the first country to prohibit supermarkets from throwing away unsold food, requiring them, instead, to donate it to charities and food banks.


South Korean food waste collection bins.  ©Revi/Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0 KR)
South Korean food waste collection bins. ©Revi/Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0 KR)

South Korea is also proving that government policies can make a huge difference.


In Seoul alone, the volume of food waste has been reduced by 10% (more than 300 tons per day), compared to a few years ago. Also, in 2013, a policy was implemented in Seoul that required households to pay for recycling according to the amount of food they throw out. This policy has been adopted in sixteen other Korean cities.


Conclusion


Preventing food loss and food waste holds many benefits for nations, farmers, entrepreneurs, consumers, and other stakeholders. Moreover, young people are seeing they have a role in managing food systems so that waste, loss, and hunger all become minimal or nonexistent.


According to UNICEF, more than 820 million people go to bed hungry every night, while 1.3 billion tons of food goes to waste every year. This is unacceptable. The time to act is now.

 

*Danielle Nierenberg is President and co-founder of Food Tank: The Think Tank for Food, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. She has conducted fact-finding missions to more than 70 countries, meeting thousands of farmers, researchers, government leaders, academics and journalists, documenting what is working to help alleviate hunger and poverty while protecting the environment.


Editorial Note:

Author Title: “Key Issues in the Preservation and Distribution of Food,” Presentation by Danielle Nierenberg at the Twenty-Sixth International Conference on the Unity of the Sciences (ICUS XXVI), February 2020, Seoul, Korea.

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