Post-harvest waste: a challenge to farmers

By Lebo Moore

DES MOINES, Iowa — One-third of food produced worldwide goes to waste, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. That equates to an average of 1.3 billion tons a year.

In countries like the United States we see food waste as a refrigerator full of leftovers, blemished fruit in grocery store dumpsters or expired and miss-labeled meat.

But for Sanjaya Rajaram, the 2014 World Food Prize Laureate, and a former research partner of Norman Borlaug at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, the problem lies with post-harvest loss.

“Much more has to be done in storage — proper storage — to protect the crop,” Rajaram said.

In other parts of the world food waste occurs when crops rot in the field or lack proper storage facilities. As a result, food becomes plagued by pests and disease.

In northern Ghana, Augustus Dery Ninfaa, a Bourlaug Fellow and Postharvest Technologist at Bolgatanga Polytechnic, is working to reduce post-harvest loss, which escalated to 50 percent of total maize produced in 2012.

Most of this loss is due primarily to the fact that 60 percent to 70 percent of food produced is stored in the homes of small-scale farmers in traditional storage structures. These structures, though easy to build, make it difficult to ensure dry storage of grain.


George Opit, associate professor at Oklahoma State University

Ninfaa’s solution has been to design and test affordable solar-drying structures that can be made with local resources. He is also investigating ways to improve traditional storage structures by designing attachments to circulate air more efficiently.

Farmers he talks with in Ghana emphasize the hunger that follows post-harvest loss.

“Poverty cannot be defined, but can only be felt,” said Ninfaa.

George Opit, associate professor in entomology and plant pathology at Oklahoma State University, supports this sentiment. He emphasized the benefit of local input and community organization in working toward solutions.

“The tools that are required to mitigate problems are present on the ground,” Opit said.

Individual farmers could shift post-harvest handling to community-based organizations, he said. This could foster more agricultural education, transportation infrastructure and timely access to markets — all capable of improving post-harvest grain management.

In addition, Opit sees a need for more research on post-harvest loss and investment from the private sector.

For the past 30 years, the bulk of research has focused on increasing production, Opit said. He suggests instead a new focus on finding ways to dramatically reduce food waste.

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