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What is postharvest food loss?

  • Food loss occurs in the agricultural food value chains after harvest. In developing countries, it can range between 30-50% depending on the food value chain;
  • 95% of the research investments during the past three decades focused on increasing productivity while only 5% was directed towards reducing food losses;
  • There are two types of food losses (quantitative and qualitative). Quantitative food loss is defined as physical food loss such as spoilage and wastage, which ultimately, does not end up being consumed by people; qualitative food loss can be a combination of a reduction in nutritional value, economic value, food safety and/or consumers’ appreciation, but still being consumed by people.

What is the role of energy in contributing to postharvest food loss prevention?

  • Agricultural communities (and many of them are rural) do not have access or have intermittent access to modern energy infrastructure (think electricity). This results in energy poverty. (Note: energy poverty is defined as a situation where large numbers of people in developing countries whose well-being is negatively affected by very low consumption of energy).
  • Energy poverty is bad news for postharvest food value chain since postharvest food system is typically 2-4 times more energy intensive than at farm level, thus anything less than 2-4 times results in elevated postharvest food losses.
  • The distribution of frozen food (cold chain) is around 1.7 times as energy-intensive as distribution without cold chain or refrigeration (which relies a lot on access to electricity). The lack of electricity and refrigeration technologies as such accounts for 25-30% losses of perishable food production.

What are the impact of food losses?

  • Climate change: If food loss is a country, it is ranked third behind China and United Stated as one of the largest CO2 emitter.
  • Water scarcity: Agriculture is the largest user of water, accounting for 70% of total withdrawal. Food losses result in up to 10.5% to 35% of global water use being wasted. This is worrying considering that only 3% of the world’s water is freshwater, but only ~0.5% is suitable for agriculture (0.5% in the form of soil moisture and groundwater; 0.01% in the form of river, lakes and swamps). Climate change is only going to aggravate water-stress inducing agricultural practices globally.
  • Deforestation: Data for the World Bank indicates that agricultural land covers 38% of the total global land area while forest coverage less, at 30.8%. Agricultural land requirement is in direct competition with forest thus larger land requirement means more deforestation. To maintain current level of agricultural output by eliminating postharvest food losses, agricultural land cover would reduce to between 19-26.6% while increasing potential forest coverage to 42-50%.

How can energy play a role in preventing food losses?

Eliminating energy poverty should be the approach that is necessary to eliminate postharvest food loss in developing countries. One of the approaches is to invest and develop the cold chains (highly dependent on access to refrigeration and access to electricity).

  • A developed cold chain can eliminate 25–30% losses of perishable food production in developing countries, resulting in recovery of between USD$ 500-830 billion globally;
  • Under optimistic scenario, for every USD$1 of capital investment into the cold chain, an additional USD$ 5 is added to agricultural value chain yearly;
  • Under pessimistic scenario, for every USD$1 capital investment into the cold chain, an additional USD$ 0.8 is added to agricultural value chain yearly.

Conclusion

I believe that providing energy access to agricultural communities in developing countries would help us to achieve goals set by UN Sustainable Energy for All and UN Sustainable Development Goals. While we have achieved a lot in the last few years in reducing poverty and increasing food security globally through agricultural development, there is still a lot of work to be done especially in Sub-Saharan Africa.