In the last few decades, globally scientists and cultivation experts continued to pursue glorious successes - to increase crop yield and farm-gate productivity. The fact that in matters of food, first mile productivity is of no avail unless it translates at the finish line, had escaped that euphoria of producing more. A resultant demand-supply-mismatch emerged across agricultural commodities, contributing to wide spread food loss and a crisis in managing the output that goes waste.
As per FAO reports, worldwide food lost & wasted equals one third of the total food produced. This means about 1.3 billion tons food is discarded every year, due to post production spoilage because of lack of farm-to-market connectivity, in transit loss, and some that is thrown and wasted in the hands of end-users.
This quantum of food loss & waste (FLW) is also associated with about 0.5 Gigatons of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases, which adds to global warming. Unless corrected, these emissions can go up five-fold by 2050, according to a study by Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. While pockets of the globe go hungry, one third of what is produced decomposes into greenhouse gases heating up our atmosphere.
Over the last few years, India too witnessed a marked increase in its farm output, especially in high nutrition produce like fruits, vegetables, milk, meat, fish and poultry. However, all these food items are highly perishable and required the developing, in tandem, of an associated perishable supply chain system. Yet, the progressive advance in logistics infrastructure was not always strategically directed, leaving missing links in various stages of the food chain.
The inability to bridge the demand-supply gap - unable to fully convey the harvested fresh produce to gainful end-use (markets) - allows millions of tons of food to be lost, and makes agriculture unsustainable. This also causes acute price fluctuations and fosters sporadic inflation.
In India too, as it continues to produce more from farms, this problem surfaces frequently. India's horticulture (fruits, vegetables, spices, flowers) production has continually surpassed food grain production in last 3 years, touching a high of 283 million tons in 2016. An average 30 per cent inefficiency in transit from farm-to-consumers tots up to 1 hundred million tons of fruits and veggies lost. You can add to this, the losses estimated from annual production of 15 million tons in fish and meats and about 166 million tons in milk.
Except in the milk handling sector, the market linked logistics that ensure safe handling and conveyance till consumers has been left grossly inadequate. Instead, the cold-chain developed with a mind-set to deny-and-time the market. The opportunity to capture-and-service a bigger market was ignored or not even understood.
Holistic needs were overlooked with the short-sighted preference to hoard-to-defer market transactions. Such a strategy cannot contribute to inclusive growth or higher productivity. Neither does such strategy promote supply chain excellence or build any opportunity to scale the food distribution chain.
Inadequacy of technology aided farm-to-market logistics is key contributor to food loss volumes and this adds to inflationary pressures, more so in case of perishable foods. Most critically, every extra ton that we produce only adds to the share of food losses and the ensuing system no longer brings value to our farmers.
Unable to convey the harvested fresh produce to gainful end-use (markets), millions of tons of food is lost and that makes agriculture unsustainable!
Worldwide, we must approach the problem differently, "that we lose 40% of what we produce, indicates that we are capable of handling only 60% of our output. Anything more than what our supply line can handle, is in fact 100% waste". It is apparent, we need to scale up our supply chain and distribution network, so as to effectively bridge production and demand. The changed situations require a more dynamic and connected food supply chain.
The answer to food loss is to bridge the gaps between point of harvest and multiple points of consumption. This means opening market access and ensuring food supply chains are strengthened. For high perishable food types, the answer is cold-chain logistics. Food processing technologies is confused with cold-chain but it too cannot stop food loss, as the frozen pea or bottled ketchup will also end up as expired waste unless it finds logistics connectivity with markets.
Food processing is a helpful intermediary in the food supply chain by processing unusable or special produce. Nevertheless, everything cannot be processed, plus as consumers become affluent, processed foods or artificially fortified foods take the back seat. Moreover, in its current avatar the processing industry is already consumer driven and highly competitive. If markets could absorb more processed or convenience foods, the industry would not be restrained in meeting that demand.
On the other hand, the fresh whole food market is bereft of substantive market linkage or demand based metrics. India's farming community mainly functions to service a push mode into wholesale markets, and therefore will benefit from increased access to many more markets. The prime solution is connectivity into the unified domestic market and the logistical ability to deliver and reach into multiple other markets in the SAARC region. This is how agri-logistics and cold-chains can bring value to agrarian economies - by empowering the producers with the ability to reach across geographies, and offering them a choice into more markets.
Food produced must reach point of consumption; whole food is the preferred mode of nutrition; productivity is best measured at end-point or point of delivery; food delivery systems directly impact climate change; when all delivery options fail, non-marketable food can be retrieved and optimised upon through processing technologies.
Supply chain leaders must set direction, take leadership roles, with the aim to create opinion that will help sustain our global population and the globe itself.
Humankind needs to quickly wake up to more innovative ideas, advanced technologies and greener solutions to mitigate post-harvest food loss.