Spoiler Alert – Minimizing Food Loss Is Easier Than You Think
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (Rome)
Simple solutions can help break the vicious cycle of food loss and climate change
Food. It is grown, harvested, processed, packaged, transported, distributed, traded, bought, prepared and then… thrown out.
Each year, approximately 14 percent of the food we produce is lost between when it is harvested and before it reaches the shops. A further 17 percent of our food ends up being wasted by retailers and consumers.
Food loss and waste is also a major contributor to the climate crisis, accounting for up to 10 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions. In some countries, the food supply chain is already on course to overtake farming and land use as the largest contributor to GHGs emissions, adding to an unstable climate and extreme weather events such as droughts and flooding. This, is turn, impacts crop yields and their quality, increases food loss and further threatens food security and nutrition.
And while the world produces enough food to feed its population, almost 830 million people still go hungry every day. The causes of the mismatch between supply and demand are multiple and symptomatic of larger inefficiencies in our agrifood supply chains – a term that covers the entire journey of food, from farm to table – and beyond.
Addressing such inefficiencies and breaking the vicious cycle between food loss and waste and climate change, especially at a time of inflated food prices, is therefore a top priority.
FAO has implemented several projects designed to reduce food loss and make agrifood systems more efficient. Some of those showing promising results involve fruit and vegetable production in southern Asia, where one of the most important crops is mango.
Ripe mangoes have many uses. They can be consumed fresh or used as ingredients in the preparation of confectionery, ice cream, sherbets, and bakery products. Their pulp is also high in dietary fiber, vitamin C, provitamin A, carotenoids and antioxidants.
However, like other fruits, fresh mangoes spoil rapidly because of their high moisture content and delicate nature. If not harvested at the correct stage of maturity, and if not handled properly throughout the distribution chain, mangoes suffer both in terms of quality and quantity, resulting in losses and reduced income for all involved in their production and post-harvest handling. Furthermore, improper handling and infestations shorten their shelf-life, which in turn limits their sales, resulting in economic losses.
In the fields of southern Asia, for example, FAO experts found that local farmers often have scarce knowledge of how to handle fruit and vegetables after the harvest and also lack the resources to address quality issues in the supply chain. This can result in more than half of vegetable harvests being lost.
The main causes of post-harvest losses are diseases, pest infestations, improper harvesting techniques, careless handling, poor packaging and transport conditions.
However, when FAO trained the farmers to apply good post-harvest management practices and use reusable plastic crates instead of single-use mesh sacks to transport their produce, the switch produced dramatic improvements.
Most recently, FAO has introduced good practice and sustainable low-cost solutions for improving the quality and shelf-life of mangoes in Bangladesh. The evidence shows that despite their low cost, the impact of such measures is high.
The use of plastic crates for bulk packaging, for instance, reduced losses to a minimum during transportation, while shelf-lives in shops and markets improved significantly for the mangoes that underwent a hot-water treatment that controls post-harvest diseases. New harvesting tools and techniques, such as improved picking poles or trimming the fruit stem with scissors and gloves rather than pulling them off by hand, reduced mechanical injury to the fruit, while the trimming of the stems reduced latex staining of the fruit when packed in the crates, making them more attractive in shops and markets.
Overall, improvements in the post-harvest handling practices, together with the hot water treatment, resulted in better quality mangoes having a longer shelf life in retail, with a 70 – 80 percent reduction in the number of mangoes wasted due to decay over a period of five days. This reduction in food waste, coupled with the longer shelf-life, resulted in significant financial gains for both farmers and retailers.
“These incredible improvements demonstrate that small changes in post-harvest practices, coupled with low-cost equipment, can have a big impact on the quality and shelf-life of fresh produce and in reducing food loss and food waste,” said Rosa Rolle, Senior Enterprise Development Officer at FAO.
FAO is now promoting these findings and practices to stakeholders around the world. To date, at least 5 000 small holders across Asia have already been trained in fresh fruit and vegetable production and marketing.
With the rise of food prices, the growing impact of climate change and the persistence of global hunger, there is no excuse for food loss and waste at any level. Learn more about what you can do at home to put this into practice yourself.