02/14/2013 06:04 pm ET Updated Apr 16, 2013

Waste Less to Feed More

I recently had the privilege of addressing the 13th annual Delhi Sustainable Development Summit in New Delhi, India. My remarks focused largely on the importance of creating a good environment for investment in the agricultural sector. These types of investments -- coupled with new technologies and scientific innovations -- can help support high levels of food production and improved distribution and storage, all of which are necessary to feed growing populations in India and in many other countries represented at this international conference.

I emphasized the particular need to improve food supply chains that connect farmers to markets. Significant additional improvements in food supply chain infrastructure are needed to reduce post-harvest food losses, which are disturbingly high in many parts of the world.

Some important progress already has been made. The government of India recently took steps to open India's multi-brand retail sector to encourage foreign direct investment. This policy shift was aimed, in part, at building modern food supply chains, developing cold storage infrastructure, and improving overall agricultural efficiency and sustainability.

Foreign direct investment in the multi-brand retail sector -- as well as the development of India's own storage and distribution industry and post-harvest technologies -- are critical for India's overall economic growth prospects as well as for the success of its agricultural sector. As Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh explained, an organized and efficient retail sector "will help to ensure that a third of our fruits and vegetables, which at present are wasted because of storage and transit losses, actually reach the consumer."

Prime Minister Singh makes a compelling point -- one that is not only vital to India but also should be recognized in countries around the world.

Among the most important and efficient ways to improve food security, nutrition, and incomes for millions of small farmers is to make certain that every bushel of wheat, liter of milk, or kilogram of rice that is produced is stored properly and delivered efficiently from farm to table. The current large and tragic losses of food adversely affect farmers and consumers, especially those in the lowest income groups. In addition, post-harvest food losses are a waste of valuable farming inputs, such as water, energy, land, labor, and capital.

This is a problem not only for India but also for the world at large. Enormous quantities of food in many countries are needlessly lost or rendered less nutritious or less palatable due to inefficient processing, spoilage, exposure to heat, devastation by insects and rodents, and other avoidable factors. Having lived in East Africa earlier in my life, I saw the magnitude of post-harvest food losses in that region, and the negative repercussions on human hunger, farmer income, and economic growth.

Experts estimate that about one-third of global agricultural production never makes it to the consumer or arrives in poor condition. For some products in some locations, the losses and deterioration are even higher. A recent World Bank report found that grain losses in sub-Saharan Africa totaled a staggering $4 billion annually. That amount is more than the total value of international food aid directed toward the region over the past decade. In fact, the amount of grain lost in sub-Saharan Africa every year could have fulfilled the annual caloric requirements for over 48 million people.

Because the magnitude of post-harvest losses in Africa, Asia, and other parts of the world is so massive, finding and supporting efforts that sharply reduce and ultimately eliminate such losses has been a high priority for me since I took this job over three years ago.

As a result, I meet regularly with U.S. companies involved in food production, distribution, and sales. Some of these businesses have technologies and capacities to help developing countries reduce food loss. I also discuss opportunities with innovators, businesses, and non-governmental organizations in emerging and developing countries. For example, while in India, I met with the Global Cold Chain Alliance's India Division and the Agra Cold Storage Owners Association.

Food losses in the developing world generally occur before reaching the consumer due to poor storage, no refrigeration, improper processing and handling, inadequate transportation infrastructure, pest infestation, or limited market access. Strategies vary widely, depending on crop type, region, culture, weather, and other variables. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. But the challenge is urgent everywhere. Far greater efforts are needed.

The U.S. government is taking a comprehensive approach to helping countries solve the problem through both development assistance and support for commercial business initiatives. The Obama Administration's global hunger and food security initiative, Feed the Future, includes programs to reduce post-harvest losses by improving grain storage through better technology and processing techniques; supporting the development of basic market infrastructures and risk management tools, such as crop insurance; and financing storage capacity, feeder roads, and processing facilities. At the 2012 G8 Summit at Camp David, President Obama and other G8 leaders launched the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, which emphasizes engaging more partners from the private sector in these efforts and taking bold steps to reduce post-harvest food losses.

A number of world-class companies, such as Cargill, Ingersoll-Rand, and Walmart, have already successfully deployed food storage and preservation technologies in several regions of the world. These companies are making a difference -- supporting local farmers by efficiently moving their food products to store shelves with little loss. In 2011, the Archer Daniels Midland Company established the ADM Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss at the University of Illinois, in Urbana-Champaign, to help developing world farmers protect their crops from pests, disease, mishandling, and other factors. Companies and individual donors have similarly contributed to the Postharvest Program Fund, which supports research and outreach by the Postharvest Technology Center at the University of California, Davis.

Several entrepreneurs have also stepped up to develop new technologies and approaches to reduce food loss. U.S.-based Promethean Power Systems -- a start-up co-founded by an MIT graduate and a Boston entrepreneur -- has partnered with an Indian company called Icelings to develop a solar-powered refrigeration system for transporting fruits and vegetables from rural farms to city markets. Technologies like this will improve the livelihoods of farmers in India by reliably getting their produce to market and will help consumers by increasing the availability of food. In June 2012, Secretary Clinton awarded the Promethean-Icelings partnership the first ever grant of the U.S.-India Science and Technology Endowment Fund.

Reducing post-harvest losses, however, does not necessarily require high-tech equipment. In ancient Egypt, for example, grain was hermetically stored in glazed jars with wax-sealed lids to prevent insect damage. Purdue University scientists, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are deploying hermetic grain storage bags based on the same concept throughout villages in Africa. The same group is now being funded by USAID to develop a market and supply chain for grain storage bags in Afghanistan. Effective use of the bags could reduce wheat storage loss in Afghanistan from 25-30 percent to 5-10 percent.

Even with the right technology solutions, many countries lack meaningful incentives, affordable financing options, and necessary government policies to encourage farmers to adopt efficient practices or to enable retailers to invest in equipment, facilities, and stores needed to reduce food loss and broaden market opportunities. Hence, it is critical that governments -- as India is doing -- adopt policies that encourage greater investment in post-harvest storage and distribution network infrastructures. These policies should aim at ensuring broad-based benefits for farmers and consumers, as well as profitability for the companies they aim to attract in order to produce the desired investment.

Meeting the food demands of an ever-increasing world population presents a major challenge for the 21st century. A great deal of work is being done to improve agricultural productivity around the world. But, at the same time, we must also work to ensure that goods produced by farmers actually have good markets and reach consumers in good condition.

It is high time to make solving the problem of post-harvest food losses an urgent global priority -- and to make such losses a thing of the past. Success will improve the food security of hundreds of millions of people around the world, boost the incomes of millions of small holder farmers in villages and towns throughout the world's developing and emerging countries, and help conserve our planet's natural resources.