Post-harvest losses – Part 1

Did you know that India incurred a loss of 2.40 lakh crores in 2019 as post-harvest loss (PHL) of fruits and vegetables? But what does post-harvest loss mean? Why is it so crucial that we minimize it? Let’s find out.

The post-harvest sector includes all points in the value chain from production in the field to the food being placed on a plate for consumption. Postharvest activities include harvesting, handling, storage, processing, packaging, transportation and marketing. Here are some scary stats – 35-40% of ALL fruits and vegetables produced in India are wasted! Nobody eats them, they aren’t used for anything, they are wasted! Just imagine all that hard work of the farmers, farm inputs, investment, most importantly water and other scarce resources, all gone to waste! These are perishable products and in the absence of proper transport or cold storage, they are wasted year after year. Imagine, in a country like ours where there is so much hunger (we ranked103 among 119 countries in the Global Hunger Index) and farmers are committing suicides (60,000 farmers committed suicide in 2018) over lack of incomes, so much agricultural produce is wasted. This is super worrying! I think that the quickest way to reach our zero hunger goal is by preventing PHL.

Some of the reasons for such a situation are natural calamities, transit damages, lack of storage, processing facilities, lags in stages of the supply chain, outdated technology, inefficient marketing and really bad mismanagement. But this is not it, there are many factors on the farmer level such as inadequate or irregular water supply to the crops, too much of fertilizers, lack of manure, early harvesting and even weeds. This leads to discoloration, cracks, over ripening, stunted growth and many such problems making the fruits and vegetables unfit or unattractive for consumption. At the marketing level, if the produce is under packed or over packed in containers, carelessly handled, is transported over bad roads will lead to squishing. If it is left out in the open for long, bacteria and fungi will develop and if stored in unsuitable temperature, the produce will be damaged and thus won’t make it to your local super market. Other reasons include poor sorting and grading practices and a general lack of education on appropriate postharvest handling. If this wasn’t enough, out of the produce that does safely manage to reach the retailers, part of it is rejected due to strict guidelines regarding looks!! – shape, colour, size. Perfectly edible produce having nutritional value and quality rejected because it doesn’t look good enough. Globally 40% of the harvest is routinely rejected because it doesn’t meet cosmetic specifications. Fruits and vegetables are perishable and tender, a well-timed and well managed supply chain is essential.

This is not just a problem because food is wasted. Food is wasted but along with it, there is an unnecessary demand for more inputs of production - seeds, fertilizers, land and water putting pressure on the soil through intensive farming; packing materials like plastic, more transportation and thus fuel, more warehouses and more investment just to offset the PHL.

One way to increase and enhance the shelf life of fruits and vegetables is through processing through canning, dehydration, pickling, provisional preservation, and bottling. India is the second-largest producer of fruits and vegetables. We have a huge potential for exports. At home we are witnessing a significant rise in the demand for processed fruits and vegetables due to urbanisation and need for convenience especially in the millennials. One more shocking stat? India only processes 2-3% of the total production!!! Just 2-3% compared to the Philippines at 78%, United States at 65% and China at 23%. The reasons are still the same. Lack of proper storage facilities, improper distribution and outdated technology.

We all know how farmers are already marginalized, exploited and are in a constant state of debt. Post-harvest loss is bad for everyone – the producers, suppliers and consumers. We all have to pay extra prices because of these losses owing to quality deterioration.

So what can we do about this? What are the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and Food Corporation of India (FCI) doing about this? What can retailers do? What are some of the innovative interventions done across the globe to prevent PHL? For this and more, stay tuned for part 2. Do mention your thoughts in the comment box. J


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