Every year we hear the stories — the farmer who lost a bin full of canola to spoilage, or the one who lost his sunflowers — and the bin — after the crop overheated and caught fire.
Or the farmer who opened his grain bag to find an infested, rotting mess after birds or rodents overwhelmed the seal and allowed moisture to invade.
Thankfully, those stories are uncommon enough in these parts that they are news, at least on coffee-pot row.
Of course, they can always do better as the ongoing effort to reduce harvest losses in crops like canola would suggest. Researchers estimate some farmers are losing upwards of 10 per cent of their yields due to improper harvest timing and poorly calibrated equipment.
But generally, when it comes to keeping their harvested grain in good condition, our farmers are blessed with a conducive climate; those long, cold and dry winters have to be good for something. But they also have the knowledge and access to the technology they need to maintain the harvest quality.
That’s not the case in many parts of the world where heat and humidity combine with a lack of storage infrastructure, transportation and know-how to cause post-harvest losses that are as high as 50 per cent of what farmers produce.
For example, much of India’s grains are exposed to potential decay, as state-run warehouses can store only 63 million tonnes against the total 82.4 million tonnes of current stocks, a Reuters report says. Plus, farmers have just harvested another bumper crop.
The situation has the Indian government to re-enter the global export market to move the stocks before they rot, which is expected to put a damper on prices for farmers everywhere.
That’s tragic in a country inhabited by 500 million poor and where nearly half of the children under the age of three are either underweight or stunted due to malnutrition.
And it adds to the controversy surrounding the Green Revolution, the 1960s initiative under which U.S. and Canadian researchers introduced improved genetics, fertilizers and pesticides to help India produce more of its own food and avert a pending famine.
The concept was remarkably successful at increasing production, it hasn’t meant the end of hunger. Without the necessary infrastructure, market mechanisms and storage to help get the food to the people who need it, India — like many countries in hot, humid climates — has routinely been confronted with surplus production and extensive loss due to waste.
It’s not just the economic loss to those farmers at stake. Much of production agriculture is dependent on non-renewable resources. Every bushel of waste is like stoking the boilers on the Titanic while steadying its course.
“While public and private resources have been poured into increasing production, very little work and attention has focused on adequately addressing the safe storage of food,” Digvir Jayas, a professor in biosystems engineering and the University of Manitoba’s vice-president of research and international development says in a recently published article. Adding to the travesty is the fact that so much is known about how to prevent it. In a recent commentary published in the journal of the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Jayas lays out a comprehensive “to-do” list for taking that knowledge and making it available to areas of the world that need it most, which by the way, are also regions in which populations are growing the fastest.
But key to any strategy will be recognition by governments that food grains are a national asset worth protecting, because of their role in either reducing the need for food imports or, as in the case of Canada, in generating additional export revenues.
The issue of post-harvest losses is gaining traction as is the issue of excessive spoilage due to the overstocked larders and fridges in North America.
Up until now, we’ve been told the world’s farmers must increase production by 50 to 70 per cent if they are to feed the expected nine billion people sharing this planet by 2050. Even the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization was spouting this line less than two years ago. That places a tremendous burden on producers.
However, a newly released FAO report noted the world can feed itself with less food than previously forecast if it turns to sustainable farming, cuts waste and stops excessive consumption. But it said “bold policy decisions” are needed to cut food losses and waste that amount to 1.3 billion tonnes a year, roughly one-third of the world’s food production for human consumption.
The focus on food production needs to shift to a focus on food availability.