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Published March 04, 2013, 10:15 AM

Fighting post-harvest loss

The U.S. government, nongovernmental organizations and private companies are already trying to address post-harvest losses in developing countries, but they also face difficulties, a range of experts said at a State Department conference on the subject.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — The U.S. government, nongovernmental organizations and private companies are already trying to address post-harvest losses in developing countries, but they also face difficulties, a range of experts said at a State Department conference on the subject.

Jose Fernandez, the assistant secretary of State in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, said he is proud of an effort in Rwanda, where post-harvest losses for beans and maize are estimated to be as high as 30 percent. The U.S. Agency for International Development’s “Feed the Future” program, along with public and private sector partners, helped establish a 3,000 megaton storage facility to benefit more than 10,000 smallholder farmers there.

In India, where up to 18 percent of all produce is lost to spoilage each year from inadequate cold chain storage systems, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton awarded the first grant of a joint Science & Technology Endowment Fund to a U.S.-Indian partnership to commercialize solar-powered refrigerated storage vehicles, Fernandez noted.

Archer Daniels Midland has established an Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss at the University of Illinois and Land O’Lakes has entered into a partnership with USAID to help dairy cooperatives in Uganda become more competitive through vertical integration, he added.

Bill Hudson, CEO of the Global Cold Chain Alliance, noted that his group started out as an international association of refrigerated warehouses, but has expanded to include an association for cold storage construction.

Global Cold Chain Alliance is a business group concerned with the distribution of food worldwide.

“In order to store it right you have to build it right,” Hudson said.

Philippe Villers, president of GrainPro, a company that makes airtight grain containers, said his company has succeeded in improving storage in Kenya and the Philippines. But he also noted that many countries do not have tariffs on pesticides, but consider plastic to be a luxury good and therefore have high tariffs on plastic grain bags. The bags improve storage, he said, because they deny oxygen and high humidity to both pests and mold.

While the Green Revolution increased production, “in most countries storage methods have not changed for 100 years,” Villers noted. Silos, he added, work in temperate climates, but not so well in tropical areas.

Lack of incentives

Bruce McNamer, president and CEO of TechnoServe, which focuses on private sector development, said existing technologies are not deployed because there are no commercial incentives.

In Uganda, McNamer said, his group has helped banana farmers aggregate their crops for sale. In the past, he said, individual farmers would store bananas in the sun and bring them to market by bicycle once a week and from there, they would be transported once or twice by truck before they reached the consumer.

McNamer is also setting up farmer-owned chilling plants in East Africa so that farmers will have an incentive to get the milk quickly to the plant.

“The point is not post-harvest loss, but to improve farmer incomes,” he said.

Fernandez called the solutions featured at the conference “small ball” — small solutions to a big problem — and asked, “What is keeping your projects from getting to scale?”

The problems are lack of attention and lack of money, the panelists said.

Governments and foundations have not put the money into addressing post-harvest losses that they have put into increased crop production, Hudson noted, citing a study that showed that only 5 percent of agricultural funding has gone for post-harvest concerns.

Villers also noted that the presidents of countries are becoming interested in preventing post-harvest losses as a way to increase food productivity.

“Post-harvest storage is the low-hanging fruit of the food chain,” Villers concluded.

“The scale of post-harvest food loss is tragic,” said Roberts Hormats, Undersecretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment at a recent State Department conference.

“Beyond the threat to food security, post-harvest losses adversely affect farmers and consumers in the lowest income groups,” Hormats said.

“Post-harvest food losses are a waste of valuable farming inputs, such as water, energy, land, labor and capital,” Hormats added.

Reducing post-harvest losses could also reduce the pressure to produce more food to feed a world population of 9 billion by 2050.

Addressing the problem

While paying for the systems to avoid losses is obviously an issue in developing countries, the Obama administration, Hormats said, is taking several steps to help address the problem:

The State Department is encouraging other countries “to remove bottlenecks and unlock business investment.”

The U.S. Agency for International Development is paying for some projects through its Feed the Future program.

The Obama administration is part of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition that was launched at the 2012 G-8 Summit at Camp David.

“This is a great opportunity to make some profits and do some good. That’s why my bureau is involved,” Fernandez said.

But Hormats pointed out that the problem varies from country to country and that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

“It’s high time to make solving the problem of post-harvest food losses an urgent global priority — and to make such losses a thing of the past,” Hormats said.

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