The challenge of how to feed a growing population is one of the most urgent issues we face. By 2050, the world population is expected to grow by a quarter and reach 9.5 billion. Twenty-eight companies—including Monsanto, General Mills, and PepsiCo—recently formed a “New Vision for Agriculture” initiative in an effort to form a strategy to feed billions of more people for the decades ahead. The group recently presented its vision at the World Economic Forum in Davos, calling for increased investment in a “technical approach to farming that increases productivity.” Yet notably absent in this new effort is a recognition that world hunger could be combatted more effectively through technologies that companies like Monsanto and Pepsi can’t monetize—namely, technologies for post-harvest food preservation.
Recent studies by the Word Bank and UN FAO have shown clearly that we already have enough food to feed a growing population if we only saved it. More than one-third of the food produced worldwide is lost to spoilage and waste. Individuals in developing countries living in food insecurity are impacted the greatest by these losses. Reducing post-harvest food losses in developing countries can have a major impact on reducing the hunger and poor health suffered by its citizens, potentially outpacing—by far—the incremental advances in yield made through the genetic alteration of seed and the heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides. Yet up until now, there has been an absence of will on the part of industry to support post-harvest preservation technologies. This may be owing to the fact that the companies who produce seed and foodstuffs make money from selling as much of their product as possible, but not from the customer who is able to preserve what they grow or buy.
The Obama administration has shown signs that they recognize the importance of saving food. On February 19th, I took part in a U.S. State Department conference on “Food Security and Minimizing Post-harvest Loss: Markets, Applied Research, and Innovation.” More than 180 attended, many from embassies of developing countries. I was encouraged by some of the technology and programs presented at this conference to reduce post-harvest losses in developing countries. Yet the meeting lacked representatives of the major food companies who say they want to be part of the solution to ending world hunger.
We need to harness the support both of government and industry to save the food that needlessly goes to waste. How can we do this?
At the State Department conference, I was able to present my dream of establishing a World Food Preservation Center. I believe this center will produce independent and self-sustaining programs within developing countries to reduce their post-harvest losses of food in a substantial manner. This concept has grown out of my 50-plus year research career, including decades with the U.S. Department of Agriculture— where I have had the privilege of hosting a number of young aspiring post-harvest scientists in my laboratory to conduct research on the biological control of post-harvest diseases. These young scientists, such as Dr. Saneya El-Newshawy from Egypt, returned to their countries and establish independent self-sustaining research programs of their own.
The World Food Preservation Center will have a world-class faculty that could educate young aspiring post-harvest scientists from developing countries in the most advanced and appropriate technologies for the preservation of food in their countries. The center will be at the forefront of innovative, inexpensive technologies for the preservation of food—such as solar refrigeration for storage and transport, biological control of pests, and active and intelligent packaging. Scientists from more than forty developing countries have endorsed the idea of the Center. If created, it could play a significant role in ending a stubborn culture of dependency that has often plagued international food-aid programs. It could provide developing countries methods to improve food security on their own. It could also enhance our national security; political unrest often results from food scarcity, and a minimal investment in post-harvest technologies can ameliorate these challenges before they arise.
The solution to world hunger cannot be driven solely by genetic alteration of seed and the heavy application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These approaches have placed burdens on the environment that have become increasingly difficult to bear. We have the potential to combat world hunger with a strategy far more simple: making sure that the food we create is actually eaten.