OTTAWA – One-quarter of all the food in the world is lost each year, owing to inefficient harvesting, inadequate storage, and wastage in the kitchen. Halve that waste, and the world could feed an extra billion people – and make hunger yesterday’s problem.
The extent of food loss is particularly galling in view of a new global study on food security from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. According to the FAO, 57 developing countries have failed to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of hungry people by this year. One in every nine people on the planet – 795 million in all – still goes to sleep hungry.
Of course, there has also been remarkable progress: over the last 25 years, the world has fed an extra two billion people, and – for all the 57 failures – the developing world as a whole has almost halved its hunger rate. But the challenge is to sustain the progress: by 2050, demand for food will have nearly doubled. One reason is that by then the world will have added another two billion mouths to feed; a second reason will be the growing appetite of a surging new middle class.
At the moment, the UN is considering 169 new development targets to succeed the Millennium Development Goals (hunger is one target area, among many). These targets are vitally important, because they will determine how more than $2.5 trillion in development money is spent on everything from climate change to malaria.
My think tank, the Copenhagen Consensus Center, therefore asked 60 teams of top economists to assess which proposed targets will do the most good – and which will not. Our research on food security shows that there are smart ways to feed many more on the planet – but they have little to do with the campaigns against waste seen in most of the rich world.
In the rich world, the focus is on food wasted by the consumer. This makes sense: more than half of the rich world’s losses take place in its kitchens (basically because we can afford it).
In Britain, for example, the greatest waste is in salads, vegetables, and fruits – luxuries when compared with the cheap calories contained in the grains and tubers consumed throughout the developing world. Smaller households in rich countries waste more per person, because it is harder to put everything to use, while richer households add waste when they can afford to buy extra “just to be on the safe side.”
By contrast, the world’s hungry poor waste very little, simply because they cannot afford to. In Africa, daily food waste averages 500 calories per person – but consumers account for only 5% of this loss. More than three-quarters of the waste occurs well before the kitchen, in inefficient agriculture, because birds and rats eat crops during harvest, for example, or pests spoil grain stores.
There are many remedies for this kind of waste – from the “curing” of roots and tubers to minimize damage, to more expensive refrigeration. So why aren’t these technologies – widely used in richer countries – adopted in the developing world?
The answer is a lack of infrastructure. If there are no proper roads linking fields to markets, farmers cannot easily sell their surplus produce, which may then spoil before it can be eaten. Improving road and rail capacity enables farmers to reach buyers – and fertilizer and other agricultural inputs to reach farmers. Supplying reliable electricity permits grains to be dried and vegetables to be kept cool.
Economists from the International Food Policy Research Institute estimate that the overall cost of approximately halving post-harvest losses in the developing world would be $239 billion over the next 15 years – and would generate benefits worth more than $3 trillion, or $13 of social benefits for every dollar spent.
This would make food more affordable for the poor. By 2050, better infrastructure could mean that 57 million people – more than the current population of South Africa – would no longer be at risk of hunger, and that about four million children would no longer suffer from malnutrition. Most of these gains would be in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the world’s most deprived regions.
But there is an even better investment. We can achieve three times the economic benefits, and even larger reductions in the number of people at risk of hunger, if we focus on improving food production rather than just on preventing food losses.
Today, only $5 billion is spent annually on research to improve the seven major global food crops, and just one-tenth of that is targeted to help small farmers in Africa and Asia. Investing an extra $88 billion in agricultural research and development over the next 15 years would increase yields by an additional 0.4% each year.
That might not sound like very much, but the reduction in prices and improvements in food security would help almost everyone. It would be worth nearly $3 trillion in social good – yielding an enormous $34 of benefits for every dollar spent.
Hunger is a complex problem, exacerbated by financial pressures, volatile commodity prices, natural disasters, and civil wars. But we could take an enormous step toward winning the global campaign against malnutrition, simply by investing in improved infrastructure and in agricultural research and development.