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Post-2015 Consensus: Food Security and Nutrition Perspective, Barrett

Summary 

By 2050, there will be far more people to feed, increasingly distant from the rural areas where food is produced, and with the vast majority of the increased demand coming from Africa and Asia. In a world where currently up to 900 million people are chronically malnourished, reducing post-harvest losses could play a significant role in meeting the coming challenge.

Rosegrant et al make the most serious attempt to date to come to a reasonably rigorous answer to the question of the role that lower PHL might play. It is particularly useful that they have compared the effectiveness of reducing losses with the impact of increased spending on agricultural R&D. In the end, they project that both infrastructure investment to reduce PHL and AR&D investment would significantly improve food security, especially in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, the regions of greatest global concern. Their conclusion is very sensible: PHL reduction can contribute to improvements in food security globally, but it is relatively less important and less cost-effective an approach than alternative policy instruments available to policymakers. 

For a variety of reasons, I suspect that the authors’ estimates even err in the direction of exaggerating the role that PHL reduction can play. Their simulations only consider the food security impacts of infrastructure improvements that reduce PHL and ignore the simultaneous impact due to lower prices and uptake of improved production technologies by farmers who have better access to markets. As an aside, one very noteworthy result of the study is that infrastructure investment in Africa gives a much higher return than in Asia or Latin America. The second reason why the attractiveness of PHL reduction may be exaggerated is that there is no comparison with other potentially high return interventions.

Another issue is that targeting reductions in food waste is difficult because losses appear for different reasons in different parts of the chain. PHL rates are endogenous to food prices and to incomes and in ways that will naturally make PHL increase as food security improves. Lower food prices improve poor people’s access to food. But lower food prices also reduce the opportunity cost of food waste; poverty, not PHL, is the principal driver of food insecurity. Better-off consumers discard edible foods that they would eat were they poorer, and a well-off farmer can afford to lose $100 worth of crop willfully that a very poor farmer would work feverishly to capture.

The challenge of ensuring the food security of 9-10 billion people a few decades from now must focus primarily on three pillars. The first is agricultural productivity growth in Africa and Asia. Yet only $3 billion per year is spent annually on research on the seven major crops worldwide, and only 10% of that is targeted towards research to help small farmers in Africa and Asia, whose climate and soil conditions and pathogen and pest pressures differ markedly from those faced by farmers in higher-income, temperate zones.

Moreover, since most of the poor in developing countries live in rural areas and derive significant income from agriculture, growth in agriculture has been shown to be two to three times as effective at reducing poverty as growth in non-agricultural sectors, making agricultural investment especially pro-poor and thereby helping with the second pillar: poverty reduction. The third pillar concerns enhancing access to and availability and utilization of micronutrients, the minerals and vitamins that are essential to good health.

Reducing post-harvest loss of food is almost certainly a cost-effective intervention. But as Rosegrant et al. convincingly demonstrate, it seems highly unlikely that PHL reduction is among the highest return options in benefit-cost terms.