Knowledge bank can prevent post-harvest crop wastage

A farmer harvests crops in PabnaHasan Mahmud

Approximately a third of all food produced in the world in a year is lost or wasted in post-harvest operations. Bangladesh is no exception to the affliction. According to an FAO research report from 2010, post-harvest loss (PHL) in fruits and vegetables range from 26% to 43%. Recent estimates suggest that 1.45 crore (145 million) tons of food are lost annually in the country, enough to feed its entire population for three months. Counting food waste at the consumer level would only increase the numbers.

Post-harvest loss is an interesting phenomenon. On one hand, it’s a distressing reality that millions of people go hungry while an enormous amount of food is laid to waste. On the other, one could think of the immense potential that a mitigation of PHL could increase the availability of food, alleviate hunger, and improve farmers’ welfare, all without putting additional pressure on natural resources, a feat that becomes more valuable every day against the backdrop of a looming climate crisis, threatening to bring in large-scale displacements and a shrinkage of agricultural production.

Taking care of PHL improves food security and helps coping with impacts of climate crisis, surely is a win-win outcome. The difficult part, however, is answering the question: how do we go about it? Although academics, practitioners, and policymakers are aware of PHL, and studies have estimated PHL for different fruits, vegetables, cereals, and fish, how do we operationalise the information?

My thoughts on the question point to the formation of a Knowledge Bank. The first step is to put together information on PHL estimates for the whole array of agricultural products in a country. In the compiled information, there would be PHL estimates for each product as a whole and for segments of its value chain. On top, there would be information on what causes PHL at different segments of the value chain, and the specific recommendation regarding how to resolve the issue. Consider the example: a recent study shows that post-harvest loss for varieties of farm-raised fish in Bangladesh is 15.6%, and PHL at different segments of the value chain are as follows: farmers – 8.1%, Beparis ((buyers who collect produce directly from farmers to sell to Paikar i.e. wholesalers) – 2.2%, Paikars – 2.7%, and retailers – 2.6%. The study also reveals that a lack of knowledge is the main cause for PHL with farmers and the lack of transportation and infrastructure are major downstream constraints. The study recommends training for farmers and investments in appropriate transportation and infrastructure facilities to reduce PHL.

Once the Knowledge Bank is put together, it shows PHL estimates – overall and by segments of the value chain, the problem factors, and potential solutions. Policymakers have a bird’s-eye view of the entire PHL landscape of agricultural products of the country from the knowledge bank.

How can policymakers use the Knowledge Bank? The document would be their quintessential guide for investment. Which product should they target first – cereals, tomato, or fish? The answer will depend on the comparison of value lost because of PHL. The nature of the product could also be a factor. Assume that PHL for cereals have the highest monetary values but policymakers are more interested in raising the protein content of the average diet and decide in favour of fish. Once a product is selected for attention, which segment of its value chain should be considered first? The answer, again, depends on a cost-benefit analysis. In short, the knowledge bank portrays the PHL profile for every agricultural product, helps identify pockets of problems, lists the recommended solutions, and allows a robust cost-benefit analysis for choosing the right investment.

Regional cooperation adds a new layer of opportunity regarding the reduction of PHL. When knowledge banks for a common set of agricultural products from several countries are put together, the power of the informational tool simply explodes. If PHL estimates of a single product differs between two countries, overall or broken down by value-chain segments, it is obvious that learning gaps exist; one country can learn from another to fill those gaps. If PHL profiles of a particular product, however, shows consistent patterns across countries, we’d know that a common problem affects producers in the region.

Bangladesh has had some success putting together information in a somewhat similar context – the action plan for the National Food Policies or editions of the Country Investment Plan (CIP). However, the purpose of CIPs was to coordinate the funding of projects by development partners. The creation of a knowledge bank of PHL profiles of agricultural products in a country or countries in the region, in contrast, is for the operationalisation of information to address post-harvest loss, help disadvantaged people, and cope with the impact of climate crisis.

* Shoumi Mustafa is a senior research coordinator in the Development Strategy and Governance Division at International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). He works on grain storage and transportation logistics, market and policy analysis, and on capacity enhancements.