Can technology help to make fresh food available and affordable?

By Herbert Smorenburg, Senior Manager GAIN

Poor dietary diversity in developing countries can be a key contributor because it increases the likelihood that people’s nutrient intake is insufficient. Making fresh food more safe, affordable and available provides an opportunity to increase dietary diversity and reduce malnutrition.

The main drivers of dietary diversity are availability and affordability of micronutrient- rich foods such as horticultural crops, animal-sourced foods, pulses, and nutritious grains. Availability and affordability of fresh fruits and vegetables in particular, due to their seasonal production and perishable nature, present one of the greatest challenges. Without suitable technologies, such as pickling, fermenting, drying, cooling and freezing to conserve, store and process nutritious foods, the cost of such foods, and therefore the cost of better, diverse and nutritious diets increases drastically.

With urbanization and globalization, food supply chains have generally become longer. In high income countries modern food processing, including cold-chain- and packaging technologies, have contributed to the elimination of most of the losses that occur during transport and storage.  In high income countries, the main losses are at the household level.

By contrast, in middle- and low income countries these modern technologies are not yet widely used, and, consequently, perishable foods are wasted before they even reach consumers. To illustrate, a recent study [Miller et al., Lancet, 2016] compared costs of vegetables and fruits across countries with different levels of income (see Table 1).

Table 1 – Absolute and relative costs of fruits and vegetables against income

High-Income countries Upper-Middle-Income countries Lower-Middle-Income countries Low-Income countries
Mean absolute cost (adjusted by purchasing price parity) of one portion (international dollars)
Vegetables $ 0.24 $ 0.19 $ 0.13 $ 0.11
Fruits $ 0.25 $ 0.26 $ 0.22 $ 0.33
Cost of recommended portion of fruits and vegetables as % of household income
2 portions of fruit and 3 portions of vegetables 2% 16% 18% 52%

Table 1 shows that the absolute costs of fruits are quite similar across the groups of countries, and are even higher in low-income countries than in high-income countries. This means that a healthy portion of fruit and vegetables becomes totally unaffordable to low income individuals and families in the developing world.

Inspired by these insights, a consortium of the Postharvest Network, AgriProFocus, BoPInc and GAIN started a feasibility study to understand food losses in mango, shallots and fish supply chains in Indonesia. We asked experts about the postharvest losses, why these were happening and what could be done to reduce these. Their views confirmed our hypotheses that the losses are significant and are caused by lack of using appropriate technologies to harvest, transport and store the crops. So it seems that shallots lose up to 40% of their weight as they dry out during storage; 10-15% of mangoes are said to get lost during each step of plucking, collecting, crating, transporting and storage; and a large portion of fish deteriorates in quality (leading to economic loss and serious food safety hazards) due to lack of sufficient cooling and freezing capacity on ships and in the fishing ports.

Last month these findings were discussed with government and private sector representatives in the shallot, mango and fish supply chains during a workshop in Jakarta, leading to an overall interest to form a Postharvest Loss Alliance for Nutrition in Indonesia (PLAN).  During its first phase PLAN and its partners in Indonesia are mapping where loss and waste is taking place along the supply chains of nutritious foods, and focusing on technologies, policy and financial innovations that could support business to reduce the loss of and waste of these critical foods for human health and nutrition.