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Reducing food loss vital to food security

By Matteo Marchisio | | Updated: 2021-09-10 15:46
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Aerial photo shows reapers harvesting wheat in the fields of Qiman township, Kuqa city, Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, June 19, 2021. [Photo/Xinhua]

On September 9 to 11, China is hosting the first International Conference for Reducing Food Loss and Waste. The conference was proposed by President Xi Jinping at the first session of the 15th G20 Leaders’ Summit in November 2020. In proposing the Conference, President Xi called for joint efforts in taking the challenge of food security seriously and support the United Nations Food System Summit, which will be held in just a few weeks.

Why is it so critical to discuss and find solutions to reduce food loss and waste?

Food loss and waste have a significant footprint on natural resources: land, water and the atmosphere. Reducing food loss and waste is thus critical to achieve sustainable food systems.

We know that food production must double by 2050 to meet the demands of a growing world population. However, about 14 percent of the food produced globally is lost before it reaches the consumers. If we also consider the food lost — or, better, “wasted” — at consumer level (in retails, restoration, or at household level), almost one-third of the total food produced globally is lost or wasted every year.

The impact of such loss globally is frightening. Food loss and waste are responsible for about 6 to 8 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Nearly 30 percent of the world’s agricultural land is currently occupied with producing food that is ultimately never consumed. The total volume of water used each year to produce food that is lost or wasted is equivalent to three times the volume of Lake Geneva.

But reducing food loss and waste is not just an environmental concern — it is also a moral imperative. According to the most recent data, between 720 and 811 million people faced hunger in 2020. Nearly one in three people did not have access to adequate food in 2020. It would only take about one-fourth of the food that is lost or wasted every year to ensure that no one would go hungry.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only further aggravated the situation. The disruptions in supply chains caused by lockdowns and transport restrictions have resulted in significant increases in food loss and waste, especially that of perishable agricultural produce, such as fruits and vegetables, fish, meat and dairy products.

China is not exempted from this global problem. It is estimated that about one-fourth of the total food produced in China is lost or wasted. Increasing food production without reducing these losses will fail to achieve the global food security targets.

How to reduce food loss and waste?

In order to suggest viable solutions, it is important to understand the main causes for food loss. Food loss can occur for a variety of reasons, which differ widely across commodities and regions. For example: crops can rot in the field because market prices make it uneconomic to harvest and sell the crop. Crops can be affected by pest or diseases because of lack or inappropriate storage facilities or because of inappropriate processing methods. Fruits, vegetables and meat and fish can perish during transportation because of distance from the markets and lengthy transportation without adequate refrigeration. In general, the main factors contributing to food loss during the production and post-production phases are lack of harvesting or post-harvesting infrastructures, facilities or capacity. Limited access to credit, or market opportunities, reduce the incentives – or the resources – to make the necessary improvements.

Reducing systemic food loss requires policy and institutional changes.

But my organization, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), has learned that small changes, too, can make a difference. And it has learned that the role of smallholder farmers in the reduction of food losses cannot be ignored.

For instance, in Timor-Leste, IFAD supported a project that sold at a subsidized price steel drums to maize farmers that could be hermetically sealed, thus killing off any potential pests. This storing facility reduced the losses from 15 to less than 1 percent on average, increasing the income of about 23,000 households by nearly 300 percent. Similarly, in Kenya, IFAD supported a program that strengthened the capacity of the informal diary industry. The program helped diary groups to access equipment for pasteurization and cooling, and improved their marketing capacity. As a result, milk losses were reduced by 26 percent in the project area, and an economic gain of about US$ 240,000 was generated.

In China also, IFAD projects in Yunnan, Guangxi, Sichuan, Ningxia, Shaanxi — just to name a few provinces and autonomous regions where were IFAD has operated recently — have contributed to construct rural roads and improve road connectivity – facilitating market access and reducing loss during distribution; build or improve storage facilities – reducing food loss during the storage phase; and provided cooling and other processing facilities, and capacity in post-harvesting operations. Digitalization can also improve the overall efficiency along the entire food chain.

Solutions to reduce food loss clearly exist. As a global community, we need to commit to facilitate the adoption and scaling-up.

The author is IFAD Representative in China.

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