SEATTLE— What if we’re already producing enough food to feed the growing world population, but we’re just not able to preserve it long enough? Solar refrigerators and cold-storage facilities could be the answer.
Recent studies and news reports have called attention to the role that post-harvest food preservation must play in addressing world hunger. Feeding the world’s growing population is widely acknowledged to be one of the most urgent issues facing humanity. But the irony is that we may be much closer than we realize, if we could only stop the loss of post-crop foodstuffs to spoilage.
Currently, more than one-third of the food produced globally is lost to waste or spoilage. People living in developing countries—where food insecurity risks are the highest—face the greatest negative impact from this loss, as well as in many cases the greatest hurdles to overcoming the challenge. Both the World Bank and the Food And Agriculture Organization of the United Nations have released studies showing that there is potentially already enough food produced in the world to feed a growing population, if we could properly store and save it instead of letting it go to waste. Losses occur throughout the current food supply chain, but the ramifications are likely felt most keenly by those regions most desperate for more food.
In medium- and high-income countries the highest levels of waste occur at the consumption stage when consumers discard food still suitable for human consumption. Industrialized countries waste more food per capita than developing countries. But in low-income countries food is lost primarily at the beginning or middle of the food chain, long before it reaches consumers because of a host of financial, technical, and other limitations. Harvesting techniques, storage, cooling facilities, supply chain infrastructure and packaging can all be lacking in low-income countries and the dearth contributes to food losses.
Some have called into question why more resources haven’t been put into developing the kind of post-harvest preservation technologies that would address these losses of viable foodstuffs. Currently a lot of resources are funneled into seed production or growing food, possibly because it’s an easier model to monetize than one in which customers can preserve what they grow or buy.
The U.S. government is showing early signs that this discrepancy has been noticed. In February the U.S. State Department convened a conference on “Food Security and Minimizing Post-harvest Loss: Markets, Applied Research and Innovation.” The meeting drew representatives from developing countries, as well as U.S. attendees from the government and business sectors.
At the conference, Robert D. Hormats, under secretary for economic growth, energy and the environment said, “the scale of post-harvest food loss is tragic. Nearly one-third of global agricultural production never makes it to the consumer or arrives in poor condition. Beyond the threat to food security, post-harvest losses adversely affect farmers and consumers in the lowest income groups. And, post-harvest food losses are a waste of valuable farming inputs, such as water, energy, land, labor, and capital.”
One attendee of the conference, Dr. Charles L. Wilson, presented research advocating for the establishment of a World Food Preservation Center to produce programs in developing countries geared towards substantially reducing post-harvest food losses.
According to Dr. Wilson, some of the solutions could be as simple and inexpensive as developing solar refrigeration to allow for storage and transport, better biological control of pests, and more intelligent packaging for food. The strategy, he noted, is simple: ensure that the food created is actually eaten.
In a recent article advocating further for the ideas he presented Dr. Wilson noted: “Scientists from more than forty developing countries have endorsed the idea of the Center. If created, it could play a significant role in ending a stubborn culture of dependency that has often plagued international food-aid programs. It could provide developing countries methods to improve food security on their own. It could also enhance our national security; political unrest often results from food scarcity, and a minimal investment in post-harvest technologies can ameliorate these challenges before they arise.”
Under Secretary Hormats noted at the February conference that there has been some progress made in this area. India, for example, took steps to open its retail sector to encourage foreign direct investment specifically aimed at building a modern food supply chain with cold storage infrastructure, as well as improve overall efficiency and sustainability in the agriculture sector.
– Liza Casabona
Sources: Mother Earth News, U.S. State Department, FAO
Sources: National Geographic Channel