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Low-Hanging Fruit: the Fight for Food Security

Questions relating to global security have dominated the headlines in recent weeks, pushing discussions of other important aspects of human security off the front page, to appear several clicks away from home pages. Yet many of these questions will still be with us long after groups such as ISIS have faded away. Food security is one. How will the world feed a rapidly growing world population (current projections run to about 9.7 billion by 2050, or 31% more than today) of more affluent consumers desiring more resource-intensive protein and dairy-based diets? And how will we do so with less land to use (and often of declining quality), less water, less fertilizer and fewer pesticides? And all this in the context of climate change?

The answers are generally gloomy, referencing half a dozen factors that will hinder, if not prevent, us from meeting the mounting demand for food over the next thirty-odd years.

Yet there are a number of grounds for optimism — any shortlist would include progress expected from  GMOs, precision farming, the greater  employment of agricultural analytics, “manufactured” foods,  dietary changes, and  personalized nutrition. However, there is another consideration, which because of its everyday, seemingly quotidian nature is often overlooked, even by people interested in agriculture: reducing post-harvest loss (PHL).

Due to writers such as Jonathan Bloom, whose 2010 book American Wasteland: How America ThrowsAway Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It), consumers in the US and other affluent countries are now far more aware of the problems caused by failing to maximize use of foods made available for purchase in the retail sector. Less-than-perfect fruits and vegetables go unsold; consumers leave uneaten food piled high on their plates in restaurants; leftovers at home often spoil or are thrown away. Food waste is a problem, but there is a difference between food loss and food waste — and food loss is a big problem all over the world, not only for rich countries in the OECD.

PHL refers to avoidable food losses (quantitative and qualitative) occurring earlier in the production/consumption sequence, generally due to losses occurring between harvest and marketing (although some experts take PHL all the way to the time of consumption). There are various stages within this sequence where PHL can occur, beginning with the harvest itself, which if late or occurring in sub-optimal conditions, can lead to considerable reductions in the quantity and/or quality of output.  After the harvest itself, additional losses occur during handling, threshing, drying, cleaning, processing, transportation and storage, with further losses at marketing sites of one type or another.

The important word is avoidable. Some food loss is expected in the processing of manyamericanwasteland crops, particularly grains. In the case of rice, over 30 percent of the “rice” harvested (the husk or hull and bran layers) is intentionally  removed in the milling process to produce marketable rice. Another 8 percent or so is normally “broken” in the milling process and marketed as such. PHL does notrefer to such losses, but to losses above and beyond them, losses generally due to spoilage.

The upshot of PHL is that there is often a large, overlooked gap between gross and net crop yields; but most agricultural reporting concentrates on the former, which overstates food availability to varying degrees, sometimes considerably. Every year we see market reports regarding crop yields (in August, the USDA forecast corn yields at 169 bushels per acre, soybean yields at 47, and wheat yields at 44) but the dirty little secret behind such reports is that the numbers refer to gross rather than net yields.

Total PHL— that is, avoidable loss — can range from as little as 5-10 percent to over 50 percent, with losses generally greater in crops considered perishables (fruits and some vegetables) and semi-perishables (pulses, other vegetables, roots and tubers, oilseeds) than in cereal grains. Not surprisingly, conditions are such in less developed countries that the levels of PHL are much greater than in developed countries, which generally employ modern drying and milling facilities, and possess advanced logistics/cold chains.

So why the grounds for optimism? Because the technology characteristic of modern agribusiness and cold-chain logistics is rapidly being reengineered and adapted to suit circumstances in LDCs and emerging economies. Indeed, through the creative and innovative efforts of both private-sector firms and governmental and non-governmental institutions, the technology already exists — much of it consistent with “appropriate technology” principles — to mitigate crop losses in all stages of post-harvest activities. Whether we are speaking of the many new varieties of inexpensive grinders and mills, which use little energy but achieve good milling results, or the new generation of temperature and humidity-controlled express trailers, or similarly controlled (and monitored) warehouses/silos powered by various low and non-carbon energy sources, including solar and wind, we can now achieve close to developed- country results regarding PHL almost anywhere. And unlike more controversial technologies for bumping up yields such as gene editing of standard crops or introducing GMOs, reducing PHL is unlikely to lead to serious opposition, green or otherwise.

Sometimes big differences can result from close scrutiny of existing practices and a series of small adjustments rather than through seeking magic bullets in the form of revolutionary breakthroughs. Increasing gross yields is getting harder and harder. Paying more attention to reducing PHL, thereby   decreasing the margin between gross and net yields, is low-hanging fruit, fruit hiding in plain sight.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

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Peter A. Coclanis teaches at UNC-Chapel Hill. He does not speak for the university.

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