Have you ever wondered why the prices of limes or tomatoes vary season to season? From the perspective of the consumer in an industrialized country, price changes are often the only impact of on-the-farm or post-harvest crops losses. This minor impact reflects the smaller fraction of food waste (25-40%) that is created from infrastructure and crop production. On the other hand, in developing countries up to 76% of food waste is generated in the farmer’s field or by transportation to the market (Lipinski et al., 2013).
Source: Lipinski et al., 2013
Food losses, and overall waste on the farm, and during transport to processors is caused by several factors, and are complicated by economic infrastructure in countries. Miscommunication is a key contributor to food loss on farms. In industrialized countries, overproduction of crops are common to meet end year targets, leaving acres of marketable crops left in production fields. This is derived from basic economics of harvesting the crops, which would cost more than the harvested crop would pay. Within developing countries, crops maybe harvested prematurely to gain income as needed, but overall food quality is reduced, and potential yields are lost (Stuart, 2009). Poor infrastructure leading to post-harvest losses are a major force, creating food waste in both developing and industrialized countries (Rolle, 2006). The lack of proper storage and sales conditions increases food losses prior to the consumer setting eyes on the food, primarily in developing countries.
Source: FAO, 2011.
Furthermore, close market access of farms is limited in developed countries, creating food waste from crops not reaching the market in sellable conditions. Inversely, having too much produce displayed in grocery stores of industrialized countries equates to expired produce in the market when consumers can’t purchase all the produce (SEPA, 2008; Kader, 2005).
Source: Letile’s Art
To prevent crop losses and overall food waste, several strategies have been developed and could be implemented. Communication is an overarching concept leading to a reduction of food waste. If farmers in developed countries would understand planting needs to meet end year goals better, then resources of land, agrochemical inputs, and time could be reduced. Cooperation between farmers would allow sharing of surplus of crops with areas containing food shortages (Stuart, 2009). Also, through communicating shortfalls in post-harvest infrastructure in developing countries, governmental agencies could improve roads, energy supplies, and overall market availability. Private sector investments can aid post-harvest facilities and transportation services (FAO, 2011). This has been initiated by Farming First (a coalition of multi-stakeholders supporting sustainable agriculture development world-wide). They interviewed farmers all over the world and asked how they hoped the private sector, NGOs, and government would take action in their local areas and support Sustainable Development Goals set by the UN Sustainable Development Summit (Farming First).
“I hope the government and private sector will invest in research and development of better inputs, for increased productivity that will eventually end hunger.”
Michael from Kenya (Farming First)
Source: Farming First
Education of agricultural production practices can assist growers in meeting end year goals. Extension services can assist growers with understanding crop nutrient and pest management requirements to meet expected yields. Within developing countries farmers should diversify planted crops to attain harvestable crops throughout the growing season, and education could assist with crops suitable for the desired location (Lipinski et al., 2013). Education about recently improved harvesting techniques can reduce the amount of crop left in field, and would allow more crop to reach the market. Finally, it is important to provide low-cost post-harvest handling techniques to farmers in developing countries, which are often taken for granted in industrialized countries. This may include using crates and storage bags to move crops from the field to market (Lipiniski et al., 2013).
Within developed countries an additional step could be taken to reduce food waste from production and post-harvest handling. This would include the facilitation of donating unmarketable crops to community groups and food banks. These crops do not meet market standards from size, pest damage or blemishes. Major obstacles to crop donation include transportation, the law, and economics. However, several advancements have been made to increase the likelihood of crop donations. Good Samaritan laws have been enacted in the United States, which protect crop donors from civil and criminal liability if the crop donated causes later harm (Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, 1996). Also, several states in the United States passed laws providing tax credits for redistribution of crops to state food banks (Gunder, 2012). The last major obstacle is transportation from the farm to the food bank. Opening more local food banks, or having specific shuttles to pick up crop donations could overcome transportation shortfalls. The Society of St. Andrew has overcome these obstacles, with services in every state to help harvest crops and distribute food. Each year they harvest and distribute about 30 million pounds of produce (End Hunger).
Source: Society of St. Andrew
However the final incentive to reduce food loss and waste during production and post-harvest handling would be to reduce environmental impacts and climate change gas emissions. Crop production accounts for a significant amount of water, energy and land use, thus allowing for a great opportunity to optimize these resources to create more efficient food source. Currently crop production releases 14% of greenhouse gasses, including carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, and 12 to 15% global water use goes to losses in food production chain (United Kingdom Government Office for Science, 2011; Kummu et al., 2012). Thus, if we could decrease crop loss and reduce food waste throughout a more efficient food production chain, we could reduce the impacts food production has on the planet’s ecological systems.
About the Author:
Amy is a first year PhD student the Plant Pathology program at Michigan State University. She completed her Bachelor’s of Science in Biology from Northern Michigan University, Master’s of Science in Agronomy from the Pennsylvania State University. From there she worked with home owners on managing tree and ornamental diseases. Missing her work in the laboratory, she accepted a job with J.R. Simplot Plant Sciences which allowed her to explore host resistance of potato to economically important diseases through genetic engineering.
Amy’s PhD project will include the merger of epidemiology, molecular biology and bioinformatics surrounding soybean sudden death syndrome. She is interested in creating sustainable disease management practices from application of host resistance and pathogen evolution.
Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996.
FAO. 2011. Global food losses and food waste – Extent, causes and prevention. Rome
Gunders, D. 2012. Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill. Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)
Kummu, M., de Moel, H., Porkka, M., Siebert, S., Varis, O., Ward, P.J. 2012. “Lost Food, Wasted Resources: Global Food Supply Chain Losses and Their Impacts on Freshwater, Cropland, and Fertiliser Use,” Science of the Total Environment.”
Lipinski, B. et al. 2013. “Reducing Food Loss and Waste.” Working Paper, Installment 2 of Creating a Sustainable Food Future. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute. Available online at http://www.wri.org/publication/reducing-food-loss-and-waste
Rolle. 2006. Improving postharvest management and marketing in the Asia-Pacific region: issues and challenges. From: Postharvest management of fruit and vegetables in the Asia-Pacific region, APO, ISBN: 92-833-7051-1
SEPA. 2008. Svinn I livsmedelskedjan – möjligheter till minskade mängder. Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, Bromma, Sweden, ISBN 978-91-620-5885-2
Stuart, T. 2009. Waste – uncovering the global food scandal. Penguin Books: London, ISBN: 978-0-141-03634-2
United Kingdom Government Office for Science, The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and Choices for Global Sustainability, January 2011.