Squandered harvests | Inquirer Opinion

Squandered harvests

“There is no bad food to one who is hungry,” Bicolanos say. Daing maraot na kaonon sa taong nagugutom.

That proverb fits the mid-year “Food Outlook,” just released by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. It foresees little relief from today’s price crunch.

“World prices [remain] at stubbornly high levels,” despite record harvests, reports this bi-annual FAO analysis. Bolting demand will snap up most of early 2011’s heftier harvests. Prices could rise by as much as 30 percent.


“Many low-income, food-deficit countries” will find themselves compelled to “spend 18 percent of their total import bills on food this year.” Compare that with the world average of 7 percent.


The price spiral stems from interlocking factors: unfavorable weather, “an unprecedented wave of political unrest in North Africa and the Middle East” that jacked up oil bills, plus Japan’s nuclear disaster.

June’s “Food Outlook” complements two new separate studies that examine food prices over the long term. One is “Growing a Better Future” by the British charity Oxfam. The other is “Global Food Losses and Food Waste” by the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology.

By 2030, the average cost of key crops could swell between 120 and 180 percent, the Oxfam report forecasts. “Half of that increase will be caused by climate change.”

“One in seven people go hungry every day, despite the fact that the world is capable of feeding everyone,” Barbara Stocking, Oxfam’s chief executive, told the BBC. “We are sleepwalking toward an avoidable age of crisis.”

“Consumers in rich countries waste as much food as sub-Saharan Africa produces,” the Swedish report notes. Globally, a staggering 2.3 billion tons of often unspoiled food are dumped yearly.

“Waste amounts to around 100 kg per consumer in Europe and North America,” it adds. “Consumers in most of Asia each throw away just 6-11 kg.”


The contours are different for developing countries. They consist of losses during production, processing and distribution.

About 28 percent of fruit and 40 percent of vegetables produced here are spoiled, Susana Castro of the University of the Philippines Los Baños estimates. FAO pegs seafood product losses at 30 percent.

International Rice Research Institute papers show that between 5 and 16 percent of rice can be lost in cutting, handling, threshing and cleaning. Another 5 to 21 percent disappears in drying, storage, milling and processing. “Total estimated losses, not counting later losses by retailers and consumers, run from 10 to 37 percent of all rice grown.”

We cannot afford to squander harvests. Social Weather Stations reports that 4.1 million families went hungry, at least once, in the first three months of 2011. “Those who experienced severe hunger increased from 588,000 to 950,000 families.”

Filipino housewives know that only too well. For over three years now, they have had to cope with food prices that edged relentlessly upwards.

A world of cheap and abundant food, cushioned by surplus stocks, large reserves of forests, fishery grounds and cropland, is now history. We razed forests, destroyed vital top soil, and decimated wildlife. Our profligate ways have handcuffed our grandchildren to a world where scarcities may well be a permanent feature. Yet, this bleak tomorrow is not inevitable. How?

First, we must decisively curb onslaughts against systems that nurture life. Today’s fishkill only replays the ravaging of critical top soil. Erosion blights over 52 percent of our croplands.

Second, we must recover the bounty dissipated in post-harvest losses. “Ang hindi mapagtapon, ay hindi mangangailangan,” farmers will tell you. He who saves will not want. Credit Senator Edgardo Angara for heeding that homespun wisdom. As principal author of the Agricultural and Fisheries Modernization Act (RA 8435), he stitched in a provision to staunch the drain.

Afma earmarked 20 percent of the agriculture budget, in the initial six years, to reverse frittering away of crops reaped and fish landed. It recognized that whittling harvest losses costs less than boosting yields. The fund was to spur blinkered agencies to “think out of the box.” Agricultural extension resources tended, for example, to focus on boosting yields of rice and corn – and little else.

Afma sought to spur research bodies and schools to innovate systems and technologies to recover the “Lost Bounty.” This is a vast complex task. Now, it’s handled by the Bureau of Post-Harvest Research and Extension, a near-invisible unit lodged within the bureaucratic maze.

Today’s food crunch provides a window to assess if we have translated hopes of recovering the “squandered harvest.” Have “mature technologies” been developed? Were they deployed? Or did they gather dust within display shelves of agricultural schools and periodic exhibits?

What are the roadblocks? Why is the rate of adoption low? Were local governments tapped as partners? Many LGUs could support projects, ranging from drying sheds to fish processing to storage. Instead, many blow their Local Development Fund in pork barrel frills, among them basketball courts and overpasses no one uses.

This is the litmus test: Were innovative post-harvest systems adopted by the ones who ultimately matter, the small farmers and artisanal fishermen? Only they can put food on our tables.

Or have earlier hopes for recovering squandered harvests gone pffft?

“Hope is a good breakfast,” Francis Bacon wrote. “But it is a bad supper.”

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TAGS: agriculture, FAO, food, hunger, Poverty, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization

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