21 September 2012

Africa: Post-Harvest Food Loss, Waste Are Focus of New U.S. Institute

Washington — A person in a developed country sees leftover food spoiling in a bin and thinks nothing of it. A person in an emerging economy sees a broken gunny sack of grain on the road and thinks it's common for trucks to lose sacks during transport.

A new U.S. institute wants to change consumers' perceptions of food loss and serve as an international information and technology hub for economically viable technologies and practices that reduce losses of staple crops such as rice, corn, wheat, oilseeds and pulses. The institute also plans to provide training for people who make their living growing, processing and delivering food.

About one-third of all the food produced for human consumption worldwide is lost, said Steve Sonka, director of the ADM Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The Archer Daniels Midland Company, an agribusiness giant, established the institute with a $10 million grant in January 2011.

Post-harvest loss of staple crops has global implications in food security, malnutrition and poverty. Valued at more than $14 billion a year, lost food could meet the minimum annual food requirements of at least 48 million people, Sonka said.

After the issue received a surge of attention in the 1970s and 1980s, awareness of post-harvest loss faded. Then, with renewed global focus on agriculture beginning in 2008, interest in food loss prevention re-emerged, according to the World Bank report Missing Food: the Case of Postharvest Grain Losses in Sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, post-harvest loss still attracts just 5 percent of agricultural research dollars, Sonka said.

Sonka will highlight the issue at the Borlaug Symposium, October 17-19 in Des Moines, Iowa, an event that takes place in conjunction with World Food Day, an annual day to raise international understanding of approaches to ending hunger.

"One complexity is the diversity of effects and causes of food loss," Sonka said. "In one locale the problem may be pests in storage. In another it may be during harvesting. And it may be with the same crop in the same country," Sonka said.

The losses contribute to higher food costs, environmental degradation and climate change, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Water, land, labor and nonrenewable resources such as energy and fertilizer used to produce food that no one consumes are wasted.

Commodities are lost during production as a result of damaged machinery or spillage; during handling and storage that also can degrade the crop; during processing and distribution; and during consumption, according to the FAO report Global Food Losses and Food Waste. In medium- and high-income countries, most food is wasted at the consumption stage, discarded even if it is still suitable to eat, FAO says.

In some countries, food may be lost because of premature harvesting if a farmer is desperate for cash. This food also may incur a loss in nutritional and economic value, and may get wasted if it is not suitable for consumption.

Potential ways to reduce loss include proper harvesting and drying, monitoring grain humidity, and careful transport from field through each stage along the supply chain. Improved pest and fungus management, proper warehousing and cooperation among farmers to reduce risk of overproduction of a single crop are other ways, FAO reports.

The World Bank reports that the most widespread post-harvest technology adopted in sub-Saharan Africa is the small-scale hammer mill that pounds maize. Other new technologies are a simple rice thresher and small tin silos that protect grain from insects, rodents, birds and fungi and allow it to be kept for long periods without degrading.

The World Bank says it is important to establish cultural and gender acceptability of any new technology, incentives for farmers to adopt new post-harvest practices, and learning alliances to ensure that key entities in the value chain interact.

"The goal is to get as much of that crop we economically and environmentally can to its user," Sonka said.

Based in Decatur, Illinois, ADM converts corn, oilseeds, wheat and cocoa into food, feed and energy. It operates a global crop transportation network, connecting crops and markets.

Missing Food: the Case of Postharvest Grain Losses in Sub-Saharan Africa is on the World Bank website. Global Food Losses and Food Waste is on the FAO website.

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