As we exchanged introductions over breakfast in Des Moines, the reporter from Beijing leaned over and said, “so you’re the one who keeps asking about the food waste.”
“Yep, that would be me,” I replied, thinking this puts a new twist on the notion of muck-raking journalism.
The annual World Food Prize/Borlaug Dialogue here is named in memory of the late Norman Borlaug, the American plant scientist who won the Nobel Peace Prize and the title “Father of the Green Revolution” for his passionate pursuit of higher-yielding wheats that could end hunger in India.
Sadly, although the Green Revolution dramatically increased India’s wheat production, so much so that it is now a net exporter, much of Borlaug’s good work is literally going to waste.
“Twenty-one million tonnes of wheat are wasted each year because we don’t have the infrastructure,” Ashok Gulati, chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices for the government of India told a seminar at this year’s World Food Prize event.
“Eighty to 90 per cent of the policy environment is produce more, produce more, produce more but the issue is what happens after that and it’s horrendous,” he said.
The losses are even higher for fruits and vegetables, often sold by push cart vendors on the street corner. “If they don’t sell it today, tomorrow it is finished,” he said. More than any other sector, smallholders, whether they are vendors or farmers, hold the key to not only ending hunger, but to unleashing these countries’ economic growth. Gulati said storage solutions need to keep them in mind. “Instead of trampling on these people, they can be a force for change.”
There is some progress. The seminar was organized by the ADM Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Losses, a $10-million chair established by global grain-handling and -processing giant Archer Daniels Midland in 2011. Speakers outlined the complexities, such as the cultural attitudes that place little value on the resources that go into producing food, and the two-for-one mentality that prompts people to buy more than they need because it is on sale. They also addressed the lack of basic infrastructure such as storage in humid climates, roads and marketing value chains.
But while wasted food and the resources squandered producing it have started to creep into the vocabulary of discussions about global food security, the main players treat it like a disturbed person making rude noises on a bus — everyone keeps a peripheral eye on it, but there are few who want to look the issue squarely in the eye.
The world’s biggest seed company, DuPont Pioneer Hi-Bred includes a display on food waste in its newly opened “collabatory” visitors’ centre, a play on the collaborative nature new-age research is adopting. But try asking senior executives in charge of research and biotechnology what proportion of the company’s budget is focused on addressing it, and the answers become vague.
Does the company have any specific research projects focusing on the issue? Any?
Um, well, we are told the company IS working on crops that are resistant to yield-robbing insects, which means crops are less likely to spoil in storage. That counts. But it’s not the degree of focus you might expect, considering more than one-third of the food the world produces today is never consumed.
That’s just an average. Tonne for tonne, North Americans alone waste almost as much in a year as all of Africa produces. Post-harvest losses reach up to 60 per cent in countries where lack of storage, transportation and marketing infrastructure make the question of how to increase yields rather moot.
Think about it. We get pretty excited about new varieties that offer single-digit yield increases. But how about doubling output without spending a penny more on inputs by properly storing and preserving what you have? It sounds deceptively simple.
My friend from Beijing pointed out you can’t expect companies that make their living selling seed to address something so complex as post-harvest losses. Fair enough.
That sentiment is echoed by Howard G. Buffett, the son of the billionaire investor Warren who heads the philanthropic Howard G. Buffett Foundation.
“Even though it is the easiest place to attack hunger, it’s one of the most difficult ones to solve,” he said. The know-how exists, but the infrastructure, or rather the money to put it into place, doesn’t. It’s much easier to keep producing more.
But fix this we must. A recent UN FAO report said wasted food guzzles up a volume of water equal to the Volga River in Russia and pushes an additional 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It costs producers $750 billion annually.
If it’s not the job of the institutions, businesses and policy-makers in charge of the world’s food production systems, whose job is it?