The issue of food waste was in the news last week, after a report from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers showed that up to 50% of the world’s food is wasted. We usually look at this from our own perspective, the amount we throw away as households and the behaviour of supermarkets. We feel guilty about this because, we say to ourselves, people in other parts of the world are starving.
This may be true, but a lot of food gets wasted in developing countries too. India loses 21 million tonnes of wheat every year, and parts of Vietnam waste as much as 80% of the rice harvest. This waste happens in different ways and has different solutions, and since I’ve written plenty on food waste in Britain before, I thought I might look at the developing world angle.
In richer countries, most waste occurs at the retail and consumer level. In poorer countries it doesn’t get that far, and tends to be lost in the processes of harvesting, transporting and storing it. Generally speaking, as countries develop, the waste moves up the stream from the farm towards the table.
Assuming the crop has grown and hasn’t already been eaten by pests or ruined by weather, the first hurdle is harvesting. You have to get it out of the ground, which means you need the right weather conditions. You also need the labour, since harvesting is often done by hand, and needs a lot of them. Both weather and labour shortages can scupper a harvest right at the start.
How you harvest matters too. Some foods are fairly robust out of the ground, like rice, which comes in a protective husk. Others are quite fragile. Fruit in particular is vulnerable to bruising during harvest, which dramatically reduces its shelf life. You’ll have seen this in your own fruit bowl, how a bruised fruit begins to rot, and how the rot spreads to the fruit it touches. Multiply this effect in a barn, and you can see the problem.
Rice and maize might be immune to bruising, but they have challenges of their own, because they aren’t harvested in a fit state for long term storage. Like many other foods, they come out of the fields with a degree of damp. They need to be dried before they can be stored or they’ll just go mouldy. In Madagascar they used to spread the rice out on the hot tarmac, often taking up a whole side of the road. That works with small producers and low-traffic roads. It doesn’t for larger scale agriculture, where you need proper processing plants, and the reliable energy infrastructure to supply them.
Once you’ve processed the food, you need storage facilities that can maintain the right conditions. They have to be damp-proof, ventilated, avoid extremes of temperature, and keep out rodents and insects. There are lots of ways for this to go wrong, and it only takes a little leak or infestation to contaminate a whole store.
If food has to travel any distance to be processed or stored, more will be lost. There are techniques for moving fragile foodstuffs like tomatoes or peaches, but developing countries may not have access to them. Imagine trying to move a tomato harvest without crates and palettes, and you’ll see how this can end.
Finally, you need markets that enable you to sell produce at a decent price. Grain exchanges allow food producers to buy harvests in advance in order to guarantee supply. Where you don’t have these exchanges, farmers all release their harvests onto the market at the same time and the price drops. You take whatever price you’re offered, and may not even make enough to replant next year.
In Britain, we’ve had this sort of food infrastructure for centuries, so it’s easy to take them for granted. But we also developed over centuries, so this infrastructure could develop over time. Development in much of the world is happening much faster than that, a matter of decades. It’s hard for infrastructure to keep up. That gives us a priority for aid and development, encouraging modern food logistics at one end of the scale, and community grain silos and lower tech solutions at the other.