When it comes to feeding the world, the focus is usually on increasing food production but a vital point is often overlooked: how much of the food that is grown never reaches the plate. A third of the food we produce throughout the world actually never gets eaten. We're talking about so-called post-harvest loss. It's a huge waste of resources.
"In Africa, we face a lot of challenges with agriculture, particularly around food security," Mamadou Biteye, Managing Director for Africa at The Rockefeller Foundation told DW. "There is a general perception that Africa is facing a production gap but the reality is that Africa can feed itself." The problem, he concedes, is post-harvest loss. "Africa produces 100 percent of what it needs in terms of food, but 60 percent of that production is lost!"
Whereas in many developed countries, the biggest problem associated with post-harvest loss is food going to waste, which could still be eaten, the problem in many poorer countries lies in the production process. The situation is particularly bad when it comes to fruits and vegetables. In Africa, half of them never make it to the market. Overall, 40 percent of all staple foods go to waste. The reason is often inadequate storage in the places where the food plants are harvested. Cassava, for example, a starchy tuberous root that is a major staple food in large parts of the developing world, spoils within 24 to 72 hours after harvest unless it is processed. Damage to food plants during processing or transport are additional problems. Less than 5 percent goes towards post-harvest management.
By 2050 the world population would be close to 9.5 billion. By then, we will need a lot more food. There is more to the issue than just producing enough food for the world. On average, small farmers in developing countries lose as much as 15 percent of their income to post-harvest loss. This affects a staggering 500 million farmers. For many of them, losing 15 percent of their income can be the difference between providing for their families and going hungry.
Furthermore, there is the environmental impact.
"About 25 percent of global fresh water and one-fifth of global farm land is used every year to grow crops that never get eaten," says Biteye. "Both water and arable land are scarce in many parts of the world and when we need more of both to feed the growing population it often means the destruction of ecosystems and the overall biodiversity in those places."
A huge problem is cost. A number of companies have developed innovative ways to dry food or store it in airtight containers. "But the farmers still can't afford them," Prasanta Kalita, director of the ADM Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss at the University of Illinois says. That's why for Kalita, developing low-tech solution or taking existing local storage or drying techniques and improving them is an important part of reducing post-harvest loss.