May 13, 2013

Commentary - Prioritizing Reduction of Food Losses and Waste for Food Security

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, marking the occasion of its annual Global Food Security Symposium in Washington, D.C., which will be held on May 21st. For more information on the symposium, click here. Follow @GlobalAgDev and use #globalag on twitter to join the conversation on May 21.

By Betty Bugusu

Betty Bugusu is the Managing Director for the International Food Technology Center (IFTC) at Purdue University.

Food security is one of the most pressing challenges in the world today.  The challenge is particularly important as the world population is projected to reach over 9 billion people resulting in increased food demand by the year 2050.  Over the years, increasing agriculture production and productivity has been viewed and supported as the solution for fixing the problem.  Despite the great progress made in this arena, such as improved crop varieties and productive farming methods, many parts of the world are still food insecure.  Furthermore production agriculture is constrained by diminishing natural resources (land, water, and energy) and climate change.  Undoubtedly, food security is a complex issue that requires multiple solutions beyond production as well as beyond agriculture. 

Reduction of food losses and waste is one of the key solutions to improving food security.  According to the 2010 United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, about one third of the food produced worldwide is lost.  Food losses occur in developing countries, predominantly after harvest, due to poor post-harvest handling and storage as well as limited or lack of value addition activities and markets.  Waste is prevalent in industrialized nations, mainly at retail and consumer levels due to various reasons, such as large portion sizes, strict standards, and cosmetics issues.  Reducing the amount of food lost requires increased investment in research and development to develop technologies and innovations in the post-production segment of the value chain.  This is especially true in developing countries where reducing losses can have immediate and major positive impact on hunger, malnutrition, and poor health, affecting the population.  It would effectively compliment the current incremental advances in agriculture production as well as reducing the strain on the available natural resources. 

Until recently, limited attention was given to developing post-production programs to reduce these losses and waste.  However, there is now a renewed acknowledgement of the role of food loss reduction efforts in improving food availability amongst governments, industry, and international organizations worldwide. 

The first major recognition came in 2007 with the winning of the World Food Prize (WFP) by Purdue’s Dr. Philip Nelson for his work on bulk aseptic processing technology which reduced food losses of fruits by processing them to a shelf-stable form for local, regional, and international markets, and trade. Dr. Nelson is the first post-harvest scientist to win this prize.  Since then, there have been several other new initiatives as well as increased awareness around the subject among various stakeholders.  A few examples are:

  1. World Bank Report 2011.  Missing food: The case on postharvest grain losses in Sub-Saharan Africa.
  2. U.S. Agency for International Development Feed The Future Initiative’s prioritization of reduction of food losses and waste in its research strategy - 2012.
  3. The United Nations “Zero Hunger Challenge,” a new initiative launched at the RIO+20 conference in which zero loss or waste of food is one of the five objectives - 2012.
  4. United Nations Environment Programme’s 2012 report on Avoiding Future Famines: Strengthening the Ecological Foundation of Food Security through Sustainable Food Systems highlights importance of reducing food losses and waste.

Despite these initiatives and discourses, efforts to reduce post-harvest losses and waste are still fragmented thus making it difficult to make significant headway.  There is an urgent need to bring together key stakeholders in global food security to develop a comprehensive and effective strategy to streamline and mainstream post-harvest research and development in agriculture programs.  The strategy should include a roadmap of prioritized challenges and opportunities relative to food loss post-harvest and market development issues for use by stakeholders, funding institutions, and policymakers working in food security and economic development.  This approach will maximize use of resources, avoid redundancy in programs and encourage cooperation.  It will also help establish a platform for continuous engagement by stakeholders to provide research and information updates for policy development around the issue of food losses.

This past month the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) of the United Nations convened an e-consultation on the issue of post-harvest losses and waste.  The e-consultation’s purpose was to lay groundwork for the study on “food losses and waste in the context of sustainable food systems” to be conducted by a High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) for presentation at the CFS plenary in 2014. 

This consultation is a good first step to initiate a formal dialogue among leading experts and stakeholders on food waste and losses.  Engagement of various stakeholders is required to develop the proposed comprehensive systems approach.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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