A third of the world’s food goes to waste after harvest

Trans Nzoia Deputy Governor Stanley Tarus sprays pesticide on a maize farm in Namanjalala, Trans Nzoia, on May 9, 2017 during the launch of Fall Armyworm Management Campaign. Lack of appropriate technologies is perhaps the biggest challenge bedevilling most small-scale farmers. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Post-harvest loss is the degradation in both quantity and quality of food production, from harvest to consumption.
  • In the 2016/17 financial year, the State Department of Agriculture received Sh21.6 billion from the national Treasury.

Food shortages, hunger, starvation, and food security are not new issues in the country, or elsewhere in the continent.

What is notable however is the fact that post-harvest loss, a crucial component of the food security agenda, has not been given as much attention as food production or hunger management.

Post-harvest loss is the degradation in both quantity and quality of food production, from harvest to consumption.

Globally, about 1.3 billion tonnes — or one third of all food produced for human consumption — are lost before they reach the market or the consumer annually.

This is enough to feed all the undernourished people in the world.

In sub-Saharan Africa, home to more than 230 million people suffering from chronic undernourishment, 30-50 per cent of the food produced is lost at various points along the value chain.

Post-harvest losses come about due to lack of adequate storage facilities, access roads and refrigeration, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

While great emphasis has been placed on food production, the huge resources spent in the process are used in vain if up to 50 per cent of what is produced is lost, and the greenhouse gases emitted in the process of producing food that gets lost or wasted are also in vain.

The vicious circle of food loss has far reaching consequences at the end of the day: farmers remain poor, food becomes scarce, the environment is degraded, food prices go up and starvation sets in.

In the 2016/17 financial year, for instance, the State Department of Agriculture received Sh21.6 billion from the national Treasury, of which Sh4.9 billion went to subsidising inputs, including fertilizer and seeds distributed to smallholder farmers, while another Sh1.6 billion went to strategic grain reserves (for buying grain from farmers).

There could be interventions to address food preservation and storage, but they are not in sync with production.

In retrospect, experts in the agriculture sector say had the food loss problem been diagnosed in the early stages before it reached 10 per cent, perhaps we would be better off as far as food security is concerned.

Dr Thomas Dubois, the regional director of World Vegetable Centre for Eastern and Southern Africa, has cautioned that it is high time the government allocated more resources to address food loss.

Speaking at the First All Africa Postharvest Congress and exhibition in Nairobi in March, he said: "Whenever funds are provided to enhance food security, about 95 per cent of it is directed to food production.

"Increasing the production of fruits and vegetables or food in general is not an immediate issue for the continent because too much goes to waste."

He added that efforts should be made to enhance food storage, market access and food distribution.

Dr Dubois further noted that even consumers have enough reason to be concerned about post-harvest management because it not only affects food supply, but also food safety since post-harvest management includes factors such as food quality and pesticide residual levels, which directly affect consumers’ health.

“As a country (Kenya) we don’t even have a post-harvest policy. There is no single institution of higher learning in the country that offers a course in post-harvest management,” he pointed out.

Meanwhile, Dr Lusike Wasilwa, head of crop systems at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro), observed that even though Kenya has performed well in training farmers on good agricultural practices (Gap), more post-harvest scientists are needed to train farmers on post-harvest loss reduction.

“The only university that offers a course in post-harvest management in East Africa is in Tanzania,” Dr Wasilwa noted.

Consequently, there are very few scientists in the country who are trained in post-harvest practices.

“Since there is no university that trains post-harvest scientists, the number of experts in the area is terminally low, which robs the country of the capacity to fight food loss," Dr Wasilwa added.

Historically, the war on post-harvest losses began on September 1, 1975, at the Seventh Special Session of the UN General Assembly.

Addressing the gathering, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger pointed out that concerted efforts were needed to support developing countries to help reduce post-harvest food loss.

The UN General Assembly then set a target to reduce food losses by 50 per cent by 1985.

There is little information on how Kenya has managed its food loss since then, but what is clear is that 31 years after the deadline, the country is still food insecure and loses up to 50 per cent what it produces annually.

The same issues was broached again in March at the first All Africa Post-harvest Conference, where African and global think tanks renewed calls to step up the fight to eliminate food loss in the continent by 2025.

The conference, which attracted more than 5,000 scientists and 50 exhibitors, came at a time when many African countries are battling high population growth, food scarcity and extreme poverty, and couldn’t have been more timely.

Notably, even Kenya, which hosted the conference, is, like many African countries, in the grip hunger, with estimates indicating that more than four million people require food aid.

Recurrent disasters attributable to climate change such as floods and drought make investment in post-harvest facilities even more urgent.

“The county is currently facing a food shortage because there were poor harvests last year.

"In August 2016, various parts of the country received excessive rainfall leading to flooding, which destroyed crops that were about to be harvested.

"As a result, farmers need to be equipped with proper storage facilities and food drying technologies to avoid a repeat of the same,” Mr Francis Onyango, a climate change consultant with the World Bank, said.

Actualising Vision 2030, the national long-term development blueprint that aims to transform Kenya into an industrialised middle-income country by then, which means we have to embrace agribusiness, product diversification and stop food loss.

Some scientists suggest that coming up with appropriate technologies that are affordable to smallholder farmers, or community storage facilities, would go a long way in containing food loss.

Mr Cephas Turavinga, a technical adviser to the African Union on post-harvest losses, said that Africa must come up with the right technologies that can identify at what stages in the value chain food losses occur.

“There is a hierarchy of causes; there are causes which farmers can control, then there are policy issues that influence losses,” Mr Turavinga explained.

A few years ago, he pointed out, farmers were required to store grains with moisture content of about 14 per cent, which resulted in the grains rotting due to the high moisture content.

The figure was later reviewed to about 11.5 per cent.

But he warns that policy makers should not come up with a blanket solution to address the different challenges farmers face.

“Some farmers have graduated beyond food security, so you need to classify farmers to enable you to identify the challenges of every cadre,” he advised.

He further pointed out that before any technology is taken to farmers, it should first be tested.

“There are many technologies around but we need to do a stock check and identify which ones suit our farmers. It is not about technology, but rather practices,” he said.

Lack of appropriate technologies is perhaps the biggest challenge bedevilling most small-scale farmers.

Dr Richardson Okechukwu, a researcher at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Ibadan, Nigeria, says that "smallholder farmers have nothing but their land, therefore, after harvesting, they are easily blackmailed into selling their produce cheaply due to desperation.”

“As a result, shelf-life promoting technologies for farmers growing tubers, vegetables and fruits can be helpful to this lot,” Dr Okechukwu said.