Chilies drying in the street. Photograph by Magalie L'Abbé
Chilies drying in the street. Photograph by Magalie L'Abbé
The Plate

The World Food Preservation Center: Solving the Post-Harvest Problem

Founder, The World Food Preservation Center

View Images

As we look around at the food in our supermarket and food stands, it is hard to believe the world is heading toward a crisis. But we shouldn’t let this abundance of food lull us into a false sense of security. It has been clearly documented that the world is heading toward a food shortage. We are not going to solve this problem, as many are telling us, by simply producing more food.

During the Green Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s we were able to increase our crop yields by three to five percent per year through crop breeding and enhanced cultural practices. Because our agricultural environment has been so degraded since the Green Revolution, we can now barely increase our crop yields more than one percent a year using our best technology. At this rate of increased crop yields, we are going to fall far short of the food that we will need to feed an estimated 9.6 billion people by 2050.

This June a report endorsed by the United Nations Committee on World Food Security titled “Food Losses and Waste in the Context of Sustainable Food Systems” was released by “a high level panel of experts on food security and nutrition.” I eagerly read this report, anxious to see what was new. Unfortunately, it spent too much space addressing how we define food loss and waste and what entities should be engaged in addressing this problem. The report lumps food waste and loss together into the acronym “FLW”—even after the United Nations spent considerable time in a previous report distinguishing between food loss and food waste. We need to move beyond this and simply accept that food loss and waste plus spoilage remove a third of produced food from our annual supply. This alone is enough food to feed two billion starving people a year.

I was heartened by the attention given food security at the recent Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ symposium on “Advancing Global Security in the Face of Weather Volatility and Change.” But I was discouraged that only passing attention was given to the post-harvest preservation of food as a strategy for reducing food losses in developing countries. All the political heavy hitters were at the Council symposium including past and present Secretaries of Agriculture Dan Glickman and Tom Vilsack, Susan Rice, and the administrator of USAID Rajiv Shah. All agreed that food security is a worldwide problem and that food security is intertwined with national security. But they failed to recognize that we cannot address a worldwide food shortage by simply producing more food. We must preserve more of the food that we already create.

Agribusiness runs the agricultural agenda and has set us on a course for the next Green Revolution. They plan on doing this by introducing and selling new products for food production. DuPont is committing ten billion dollars to agricultural research and development, and expects to introduce 4,000 new products by the end of 2020. Although these new technologies will undoubtedly help us meet our pending world food shortage crisis, they will be insufficient in themselves. Also, many of the products introduced and sold by agribusiness do not contribute to sustainable agricultural practices, and are a threat to the environment and human health.

Agribusiness makes its profits from food production (the sale of seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides), not through food preservation. Because agribusiness drives the agricultural agenda, we are investing 95 percent of our agricultural resources into the production of food and only five percent into food preservation.  This has left us with a paucity of technologies and educated personnel for the post-harvest preservation of food. This lack of emphasis on post-harvest technologies is felt the greatest in developing countries where half a harvested crop may be lost before it is consumed. We need a major shift in our agricultural paradigm to find a more balanced distribution of resources between the production and preservation of food.

In a move to shift the emphasis in agriculture more away from food production to food preservation, six major research universities in the United States, China, the United Kingdom, Africa, Australia, and South America have partnered to form the World Food Preservation Center). The World Food Preservation Center—of which I am founder—is committed to educating students and scientists in the latest technologies appropriate to the post-harvest preservation of food in their countries. It will also conduct much needed new research on technologies for the post-harvest preservation of food in developing countries. Graduates from the World Food Preservation Center will return to their native countries and establish independent education, research, and extension programs of their own that will continue generationally. This is a much more sustainable way to attack food insecurity in developing countries than programs that depend on the continual input of experts from the developed world in order to be sustainable.

It has been clearly shown that investments in the post-harvest preservation of food give a much higher return on investment than investments in the production of food. In the absence of agribusiness’s interest in post-harvest technologies, we must convince governments, humanitarian agencies, and international banks that investments in this arena are prudent. It is important for all of us to not take our next meal for granted.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.