In high-income countries, we encounter food waste every day: spoiled leftovers, expired milk, the uneaten remnants of an oversized meal. But, in low-income countries, food waste often appears very different—a harvest ruined, contaminated, or lost to poor storage; farm income gone; a family left hungry. In 2011, the FAO estimated that 32 percent of all global food production was either lost or wasted. The sheer magnitude of this figure indicates that investment to prevent waste would significantly improve global food security.
New research has called into question certain estimates of food waste in the developing world, as uneven data collection capabilities and in-country reporting standards prevent accurate progress reporting and muddle our understanding of where and why food waste occurs. Despite this, we know that food waste represents lost income for those farmers, processors, and traders at the margins of food security. It squanders water, land, and energy and needlessly generates greenhouse gases. And, the food most often wasted—fruits and vegetables—are among the most nutritious. In a world where nearly 800 million people are chronically undernourished, solutions to reduce food waste in all parts of the supply chain are sorely needed.
Food Waste in Low-Income Countries
While high-income nations primarily experience waste on the part of consumers and retailers, lower-income countries see waste throughout the supply chain, although it is unclear where losses most commonly occur. Here, food waste may appear in many forms, from losses in harvesting and storage on the farm, to spoilage, contamination, and damage throughout the processing, transport, and retail sale of food. It is important to note that not all food waste indicates ‘total loss’—that a food item becomes completely inedible. Instead, due to limitations in infrastructure, harvesting, packaging, and marketing, many actors throughout developing supply chains are forced to sell products that are damaged, lacking nutritional value, or near spoilage at discounted prices. Roots and tubers, for example, are often sold at 11-63 percent less than their full value due to quality loss. For smallholder farmers, processors, traders, wholesalers, and retailers, investments to curb food waste could go a long way towards improving livelihoods.
Providing farmers with more detailed knowledge of their crops is an example of one such investment. Foods perish on a spectrum: while some highly-perishable goods, like leafy greens, may spoil in a day or two even if refrigerated, others, like poultry, may last up to several days. Training farmers in low-income countries to identify those foods that spoil most quickly can help them to prioritize their storage needs and identify uses for improved technology.
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Likewise, farmers and other rural supply chain actors need support to access, employ, and maintain a host of new technologies to reduce waste. For example, farmers in low-income countries often store their harvests in structures with insufficient protection from the elements, contamination, or pests. To improve storage potential, Feed the Future, along with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have funded the dissemination of Purdue Improved Crop Storage bags (PICS)—triple-layer, eighty-kilogram plastic bags that can be adjusted for size and hermetically sealed to protect a variety of cereal and legume crops from pests and damage. Since 2007, these bags have been distributed to over 33,000 villages in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, helping to reduce postharvest losses for farmers by 40 percent.
Additionally, adapted cold chain technologies that can be employed in isolated, rural areas are currently in development to address food waste that occurs due to lack of refrigeration. As discussed in previous blog posts in this series, such interventions include solar-powered refrigerators and cryogenic energy storage—technologies that can be employed in regions with poor access to power.
Moving Forward, Without Waste
There is great demand among supply chain actors in developing countries for innovations to reduce food waste. Such innovations must be applied with care—care to ensure that rural actors have support to sustain technological advancements in the long term, or that a new innovation operates with regard for traditional practices. If, however, investments are made to implement storage, packaging, and transport innovations effectively, food waste reduction stands to benefit rural and urban areas alike.
Farmers who no longer lose portions of their supply to spoilage or damage will receive higher incomes and allocate more of their harvest to feed their families. Female farmers, who typically suffer the greatest economic losses from waste in their roles as wholesalers, stand to gain a great deal from waste reduction. All the while, urban consumers will see lower and more consistent food prices as supply is less frequently constrained by waste. Hopefully, as a result of concerted investment and development programming, the international community can see reductions in food waste that are significant enough to feed the millions of undernourished people around the globe—and the growing population to come.
Read previous posts in the "Growing Food for Growing Cities" blog series:
Food System Resilience in the Face of a Changing Climate
Delivering Good Nutrition
Food System Development to Improve Food Security
Urbanization Is an Opportunity for Many Small-Scale Farmers
Food Security in an Urbanizing World
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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