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For Smallholder Farmers, Food Loss Hits Twice As Hard

Corn Pile
Food loss during the harvesting period directly decreases saleable volumes by at least 15 percent for the 470 million smallholder farmers and their families and affects the 290 million people working downstream in the agriculture industry.


In developing countries, 90 percent of wastage is from food loss within the value chain. It directly impacts poor producers through foregone income and impacts poor consumers through reduced food availability, increased prices, and decreased nutritional content.

How will the world feed 9 billion people by 2050? Questions of production—or growing enough food for the increasing global population—have historically dominated the food security and agricultural development fields. The Rockefeller Foundation has been honored to support efforts in this space, from the first “Green Revolution” that led to more than a doubling of food production in much of Asia and Latin America to the more recent Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa that aims to sustainably increase the productivity and profitability of small scale farms across that continent. Despite major advances in agricultural innovation and technology that have driven tremendous increases in production, approximately one-third of food never reaches consumers because it is wasted or spoiled. Our team and partners’ research, featured below, examines the causes, scale, and impacts of post-harvest agricultural loss. You can also read more about some of our efforts to identify innovative ways to reduce food waste and spoilage here.

The following story is from Insights:

It’s a fact that’s hard to stomach: One-third of the food produced globally for human consumption is either lost or wasted from farm to fork. Not only is this adding to the food insecurity of 1.2 billion people, it’s devastating for the 470 million smallholder farmers and 290 million people whose livelihoods rely on the agricultural value chain, where post-harvest food loss reduces their incomes by at least 15 percent. Often, these groups overlap in significant ways: Most vulnerable producers are also part of the 25 percent of households in the developing world that are food insecure.

Freshwater Consumption

Post-harvest loss and waste are two different problems. In the developing world, nutritious food most often is lost to poor harvesting and storage practices. On-the-ground studies have found the chief culprits to be lack of training and availability of local services to build skills in handling, packaging, and storage; insufficient post-harvest storage facilities or basic on-farm storage technologies; and unreliable access to markets.

In industrialized nations, the operative term is consumption waste. Shoppers are attracted to that unblemished apple, which prompts store managers to put their purchase decisions through a cosmetic filter. Of course, working to change the behaviors of well-off consumers is not typically a priority area for philanthropies. Of the $260 million directed by U.S. foundations to improve agricultural productivity, only $14 million—about 5 percent—goes toward reducing food wastage.

International donor agencies, national governments, international trade organizations, for-profit food companies, and research institutions are developing practical and relatively low-cost solutions to both food waste and food loss. These range from technological fixes that would allow for more effective preservation and processing to expansion of emerging markets under the expert management of commercial food companies to adaptation of agro-processing techniques that create off-farm jobs, in addition to reducing loss.

Yet, even as innovations and technologies advance, the problem has been getting worse over time. For example, loss of rice in Southeast Asia increased from about 14 percent in 1994 to an average ranging from 37 percent to 80 percent, according to a 2013 report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Meanwhile, food wastage in the United States has increased from 30 percent in 1974 to almost 40 percent in recent years.

Across geographies, fruits and vegetables suffer the largest losses, accounting for 42 percent of loss and waste worldwide. In sub-Saharan Africa, roots and tubers are also a significant source of loss. This removes the dietary diversity critical for human health. Greater food diversity could decrease the incidence of stunting, which already affects 180 million children worldwide and can lower lifetime earnings by 22 percent.

Population forecasts paint what will be an increasingly dire picture without long-term interventions. By 2050, there will be 2 billion more people to feed in the world. If current rates of food loss persist, food production will need to increase by an estimated 70 percent and require an $83 billion investment each year to meet that new demand. Yet reducing wastage by half would yield enough food to feed 1 billion people, half of the additional mouths expected by 2050. And while some wastage is inevitable, a 50 percent reduction is achievable.

The root causes vary by degree across regions and crops but fall into three categories: a lack of training and local services to build skills; poor postharvest techniques, tools, and facilities; and inadequate market access. Research and interventions in developing countries have largely focused on technology-based approaches, but donors have more recently taken a wider market-based approach, which recognizes the importance of having sufficient capability, capacity, and incentives along the entire value chain in order to reduce losses.

“The biggest problems the producer groups face are after the harvesting process, especially transportation and storage,” says Mamadou Biteye, managing director of The Rockefeller Foundation’s Africa Regional Office. For example, it might take days for the goods to make it from the farm to a processing facility, and improper packaging may result in damage. And then there’s the matter of storage—critical during periods when transport may be impossible, like during the rainy season in Cameroon. Improperly stored, roots and tubers perish quickly, and grain can create aflatoxin and other mycotoxins, which, while avoidable, can cause liver cancer and a range of other health issues. “The sad result is that growers are forced to sell their produce at very low prices. And even in that situation, they can’t sell most of what they’ve grown, so most of it will rot, and that is very hard on these people—very tough for the families to make any progress.”

The Foundation is exploring the opportunity to capitalize on market-based models for low-cost, distributed storage, preservation, and processing technologies, and the expansion of large commercial food companies’ operations in emerging markets.

One important aspect of the work, Biteye says, is to make policies already in place more effective by learning from scaled programs in other countries that have been successful. “We are testing the willingness factor on the part of government officials, businesses and small-scale farmers to adopt these policies and practices and apply them to make them work.”

Another critically important piece, Biteye says, is to develop more partnerships among stakeholders in the food production pipeline to invest in practices that minimize food loss. For example, fruits grown in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda were rotting because of the inability of the growers to get the fruit to markets before spoilage. Government officials convinced the Coca-Cola Company and TechnoServe executives to build a plant near the orchards. “The company now has a fresher fruit source and a profit center, and growers are able to sell most of what they grow at higher prices in a guaranteed market,” he says. “We look forward to seeing this kind of approach replicated wherever possible.”

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