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04 November 2009 

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Hunger in Developing Countries Made Worse by Significant Crop Losses

04 November 2009

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Efforts are underway to improve agriculture to prevent the kind of food shortages that were widespread in 2008.  But a U.N. agency says much of the food now being produced in developing countries never makes it to market.  The Food and Agriculture Organization says crop losses can range from 15 to 50 percent of harvests. 

The FAO says agricultural losses contribute to the world's hunger problem.  It's estimated more than one billion people around the world go hungry every day. 

Devine Njie is the agency's senior officer in its agro-industry group.

"The post-harvest system is a chain of inter-connected activities from the time that a product is harvested to the point where it is delivered to the consumer," he says.

Potential problems from beginning to end

The causes of the losses can be found from the time the crops are first planted to their shipment to market.

"Losses do occur because of what are referred to as pre-harvest factors. Secondly, of
Severe drought is one of the expected consequence in Africa of climate change
Crops are often less hardy if planting is done following drought
harvest conditions. And then thirdly, the handling of the product in the post-harvest part of the chain," he says.

The conditions that exist when seeds are first put into the ground can seal the fate of the crop.

"One of the pre-harvest conditions that one could think of is drought.  When product is exposed to drought during the growing cycle, it becomes less hardy," says Njie.

So the crop is more susceptible to disease. Too much rain can create similar problems.

But even if conditions are conducive to a good crop at planting, losses can occur during the actual harvest.  A lot of fruit may fall to the ground and become too damaged for sale.  Or combine settings may be incorrect, causing wheat shafts to be shattered.

Losses can also occur during the post-harvest, such as when produce is not kept cold enough to avoid spoilage.

Losing a little means a lot

Crop losses are estimated to be between 15 and 50 percent in developing countries, and Njie says even smaller losses have consequences.

An agriculture scientist inspects diseased crops at a research farm near Pietermaritzburg, South Africa (File)
An agriculture scientist inspects diseased crops at a research farm near Pietermaritzburg, South Africa (File)
Njie says, "If you lose 5 or 10 percent of your harvest, then it means it is 5 percent or 10 percent less food available to the consuming public.  That is the message that we're trying to pass across here.  It has a very, very big incidence on hunger and the other challenges that we are dealing with in developing countries."

However, it's more than just losing crops.

"You know, you can look at it from the point of view of just the physical loss….  But on the other hand, there are resources that were put into place in producing what you've lost.  It's a waste of resources, productive resources - fertilizer, human labor – that went into producing whatever you lost," he says.

The FAO says many of the losses can be "significantly reduced" by adequate training, better packing and transport practices and improved storage facilities.

For example, a German-funded FAO project in Afghanistan used local labor to build small hermetically sealed metallic silos.  About 18,000 households received the silos, which protected food against pests, rodents, birds and fungi.  The FAO says the effect was "immediate," with post-harvest losses falling from a high of 20 percent to less than one or two percent. 

It says about 45,000 such silos have been built or distributed in 16 countries. 

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