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Preventing Postharvest Loss for Global Food Security

Last week, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack kicked off the 2015-16 International Food Security at Illinois seminar series with a talk on discuss how land-grant universities could help improve world food security. We face the global challenge to feed a world of 10.5 to 11 billion people by 2050. As incomes rise, people demand more than just calories from their food as they turn to the search to consume a broader range of nutrients and taste. This additional demand for dietary diversity means that the 33 percent projected increase in population translates to a 60 percent increase in needed food supplies. Producing enough nutrients for all is made more difficult by the fact that water and soil resources are already stretched, and will be further strained by climate change.

Secretary Vilsack noted that limiting food waste and postharvest loss is one mechanism through which we could feed the increasing global population. This potential mechanism to increase the quantity of food available was a focus of the G20 Agricultural Ministers meeting in May. Although in developed countries this issue manifests itself in the form of food waste, in many developing countries, food is lost from the field to the table. An estimated one third of all food produced is lost after harvest. If we could decrease postharvest loss by 50 percent, that would be the equivalent of saving more than 550 million acres of agricultural land, greater than the total amount of arable land in the United States and Canada and greater than the total global expansion in agricultural land since 1960.

When most people think of postharvest loss, they probably think about grain getting lost in the ground from hand threshing or eaten by rats in storage. Although those are important sources of loss, so too is the loss in quality from harvesting grain too wet without the ability to dry, loss in value from kernels broken during harvest, or wheat with the wrong protein content for the market. We take a broad view of postharvest loss, to include not only physical grain that falls out during transportation or threshing, but loss in value relative to what is produced and what is demanded. Second, we care about who is able to capture that value within the supply chain.

As an example of how land-grant institutions can help improve global food security, the University of Illinois is spearheading a multiyear project located in Bihar, India to reduce postharvest loss. Under the ADM Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss , the project involves two agricultural universities (Rajendra Agricultural University and Bihar Agricultural University), the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad as well as the Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA). Bihar is one of the poorest states in India, with 80 percent of the population engaged in agriculture and with farm sizes averaging less than one acre. It has a particularly high rate of postharvest loss, making it an ideal setting to better understand postharvest loss and explore how to reduce it.

Before we launch various postharvest technologies, we first want to understand why postharvest loss occurs. It doesn’t make sense that farmers would willingly lose one third of the value of their crop. In nutrition, there is the notion of a limiting nutrient: growth will be hampered by any key nutrient that is in shortage, and increasing other nutrients will not help increase growth. Further, identifying and increasing the availability of the limiting nutrient is only useful in so far as other nutrients are not also in short supply. It is increasingly clear this analogy holds for postharvest loss, where limited access to technology may be one limiting nutrient, but it exists in a setting of other constraints that will continue to restrict growth if they are not addressed alongside technology.

After fieldwork this spring and summer, it became clear that farmers in Bihar face a collection of constraints to reducing postharvest loss. Although there appears to be a severe shortage of storage facilities at both the household and village level, it was also evident that farmers face a number of other barriers to storing their grain. First, many farmers are severely credit constrained. Farmers need to borrow from informal lenders for planting and are expected to repay that loan right at harvest, mandating a quick sale. This anecdotal evidence corresponds to findings from earlier data from over 1,000 households across India, where we observe that 70 percent of sales of grains and oilseeds occur right at harvest. We also heard from farmers that they do not receive clear price incentives to store and that it is not always easy to sell after harvest even if one has the grain on hand. That said, most households hold back some grain from the market. Farmers largely store for their own consumption along with some extra to effectively act as a savings account. Small amounts may be sold after harvest in response to shocks that require a quick flow of cash, such as family illness. Thus, even without the incentive of increasing price, improved storage may still help farmers better preserve their home consumption.

Farmers also face few financial incentives for other postharvest practices, such as drying or cleaning. We heard of very few price premia that were available to farmers for improved grain. In other crops, we heard that end users were willing to pay a premium for high-quality, pesticide-free production, which makes us speculate that the true demand for quality attributes is not getting passed along to producers. In short, something is gumming up the information flow along the supply chain.

As part of the project, we are surveying close to 3,200 households across 64 villages in Bihar to better understand their current farming practices, resources, and livelihood options. This fall, we are working with our partners to test various postharvest technologies to learn how well these technologies work in the field as well as to explore farmers’ preferences over the different technology characteristics. This information is supplemented with a survey of traders in these villages to understand their postharvest activities and their demand for grain quality. We will further combine this information with surveys of end users to better understand the final demand for grain quality. Using these data we will explore whether information is appropriately being transmitted along the supply chain, and if not, where and why the signals are getting lost. Our objective is to identify a mechanism that will allow farmers to receive the incentives and the ability to produce the right mix of quality attributes demanded by consumers, reducing the loss of value in the supply chain, and ideally allowing farmers to capture the benefits of that increased grain value.

We plan to roll out various technologies in a year alongside other possible adoption facilitation, such as credit and quality contracts and to test whether those technologies affect farm agricultural production, income, and food security. Limiting postharvest losses and allowing smallholder producers to capture greater value from their production has the potential to improve farm incomes and increase the global food supply. By definition, these are not easy challenges. Further, they are challenges that require multidisciplinary and international collaboration. But these are exactly the kind of challenges that land-grant universities are well positioned to help solve.

Summary Bullets

  • Last week, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spoke at the University of Illinois about the role of land-grant universities in helping ensure food security for the world’s growing population
  • Cutting postharvest loss in half is equivalent to adding another North America’s worth of arable land to the global food production system
  • Reducing postharvest loss requires a multidisciplinary approach to understand current constraints and design solutions
  • University of Illinois and the ADM Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss is partnering with three Universities in India on a three-year project spanning five study sites and 64 villages to reduce postharvest loss and improve farm incomes




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