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Reducing Post-Harvest Loss is a jump start to achieving global food security


According to the FAO and USAID, almost 50 percent of all food produced in low-income countries is lost due to improper handling and storage. The magnitude of this loss is alarming: increasing food insecurity due to population growth, forced migration, and climate change means one-hundred percent of every harvest counts. Many populations now rely on famine-relief food aid, intended for emergencies. This utilization of famine stores addresses the symptoms, rather than the source of chronic food shortages. A lasting, long-term solution to food shortages and to achieving global food security requires an intimate understanding of the issue at a systems level.

Not all efforts to increase food production yield positive results

As seems on the surface a reasonable solution, farmers have long been encouraged to increase crop and livestock yields. This, however, is a destructive and unsustainable strategy that requires increasing land conversion and water use, necessitating key social and environmental tradeoffs. Expanding the amount of land under cultivation strains already limited resources and growing livestock populations further deteriorates arable land. The compound impact: raising greenhouse gas emissions around the planet.

The real culprit: post-harvest food movement, storage and market methods

Consider these three stages in the post-harvest supply chain. These storage stages are where the most food is lost, therefore it is the key to reducing overall post-harvest losses.

  • Harvest to Storage: Moving the harvest from field to intermediate storage is a critical stage influenced by weather, availability of labor and transportation logistics. The timing of the harvest can be negatively influenced by economic or environmental factors that cause the crop to be harvested too early, or too late, or fail to survive the trip to the consumer.
  • Storage to Market: The location and proximity of adequate pre-market storage presents its own issues that can drastically reduce the amount of consumable food.
  • Cold storage is rarely available in less-industrialized countries, where hot climates contribute to accelerated spoilage. This results in short storage life for meat, poultry, and fish, as well as most fruits and vegetables.
  • Growers may attempt to store crops for too long a period due to factors such as weather and market prices.
  • Inadequate storage attracts insects, mold, and rodents and is the most common cause of losses.
  • Theft of unsecured crops can also be a factor
  1. Market to Consumer: Transportation and market factors play a critical role in the final stage of the supply chain.
  • If the market destination is far from the storage site, transportation, heat, and pests will continue to be negative factors.
  • Handling prior to sale to consumers raises the issue of food safety. Food that has degraded during the journey from the field to the market is often discarded by the vendor as unsalable waste.
  • If food goes unsold at the market due to its poor condition, it is also discarded, while spoiled food that is consumed can lead to a variety of human illnesses.

So, the weak link in the food supply chain is inadequate post-harvest storage. At every stage in the journey from field to fork, heat, pests, and improper handling cause losses. Updating traditional, unsophisticated storage and handling methods will result in an increase in available food for distribution and consumption.

Could private sector investment provide the solution to this broad challenge? Could local governments and businesses create public-private partnerships to reduce this unnecessary loss of food?

Proper storage to the rescue

Building regional storage facilities to improve pre-market storage is among the most promising strategies to reduce post-harvest losses. More advanced agricultural economies have long and successfully utilized modular storage and silo facilities. This same storage strategy in less-developed countries where the elimination of food loss translates to sparing millions of people from hunger, disease, and hardship.

New impact investment is critical

Social impact investors choose to financially support enterprises that produce both a market rate return and a social benefit. Among impact investors, this is known as the “double bottom line.” Add environmental benefits to the equation and investors receive the trifecta of desired outcomes—the triple bottom line return on investment!

Presently, very few private sector projects address crop storage and distribution because of the investment risk. De-risking these investment opportunities is key to their acceptance and success. Development Impact Bonds (DIB) are a new, structured financing tool that creates a public-private sector opportunity for investors to limit risk exposure. DIBs may provide the missing link in the creation of successful regional storage networks for agricultural commodities. Modernized storage facilities represent a potentially profitable value chain solution that is starting to attract the attention of investors in the agricultural sector. 

Public sector support for private investment in better storage technology is the logical solution. Impact investors will recognize the appeal of supporting storage projects when market rate returns are demonstrated, while improving smallholder farmer livelihoods and community resilience. Correcting the problem of post-harvest waste could end hunger in our lifetimes.

This article is part of a series on “solvable problems” within the context of the UN Sustainable Development Goals



Steve is a business development specialist working with nonprofit groups in Washington, DC. that focus on sustainable food security.