Umezuruike Linus Opara 2015-02-23 23:26:31
I have been involved in agriculture all my life, from subsistence farming with my parents in our rural village in eastern Nigeria to an international academic career in Africa, New Zealand, Asia, and the Middle East. As a child, I began working on our family farm as soon as my hands were strong enough. Because we ate mostly what we grew, I learned what it means to produce a crop and save the harvest. The global food insecurity that we face today is far more complex than the food insecurity that I experienced as a child. In addition to wars and nutritional deficiencies, the global food system is confronted by factors that limit our capacity to produce food sustainably, such as climate change. Additional factors are the rapidly growing urban population, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia; the rapid decline of finite natural resources, such as arable land, fresh water, and fossil energy; and the negative impacts on our ecosystem. First we need to engage These challenges demand urgent and sustained action from our political leadership. But they also call for agricultural and biological engineers to engage, as ASABE President Terry Howell put it recently, with “colleagues and thought leaders from around the world.” One way that we can engage is by leading the effort to save the harvest by reducing postharvest losses. More than a century ago, confronted with the looming catastrophe of insufficient food production, our forebears responded by expanding agricultural engineering education and research, which produced radical new technologies. As recognized by our peers in other professions, we led the way in harnessing the tremendous power of mechanization, transforming agriculture into an engine of economic development. Since then, the global food system has been neglected, and it’s time for agricultural and biological engineers to take the lead again. Now we need to save what we already grow. Over 30% of all food (equivalent to 1.3 billion tonnes) never becomes nutrition because it is lost during handling and processing, or discarded during preparation and consumption. In the mid-1970s, a seminal report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences found that the average level of postharvest losses (~33%) was similar in both developing and developed countries. While most losses were closer to the farm in developing countries, losses were higher downstream, at the consumer level, in developed countries. A more recent study by the FAO showed that the magnitude of losses has not changed. This report also showed that total food wastage was higher in developed countries than in developing countries. Losses of fresh produce were particularly high and can reach 40% depending on the value chain. Saving what we already grow We now know that intensive agriculture, which thwarted the Malthusian apocalypse, is a major contributor to climate change and environmental degradation. Most of the production increases of the past century were mainly due to increases in cultivated area, which often involved deforestation and resulted in loss of topsoil and biodiversity. And we know that agriculture is not an efficient converter of resource inputs. Some crops require more than four times as much fresh water as their unit weight at harvest. It is not surprising that agriculture accounts for up to 70% of total fresh water use in regions that depend on irrigation. In addition, the rate of yield increase of major crops has continued to decline during the past century. In Europe, North America, and Asia, where high-yielding varieties of wheat, rice, and corn (in combination with other technologies) created the Green Revolution, yields have stagnated, implying a “yield ceiling.” While developments in biotechnology have shown promise in breaking through the yield ceiling, they are not a panacea. Instead, saving what is already produced offers an immediate entry point for our strategy to feed the world in 2050. Reducing postharvest losses is a worthy goal, but losses can never be zero. Therefore, determining the critical levels of waste that warrant technological intervention is important, along with designing and disseminating cost-effective tools to reduce waste and identify the weak links in the value chain. To enhance the capacity and competitiveness of the South African agricultural industry in particular and Africa in general, the South African Research Chair in Postharvest Technology was set up in 2009 at Stellenbosch University under the Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) of the South African Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation. Through private-public partnerships and continent-wide networks, SARChI Postharvest Technology has developed multi-disciplinary research in engineering and science, with students enrolled from various countries in Africa. Short-term training projects have also been implemented to improve postharvest management in African countries, including research internships for postgraduate students from around the world. In addition, the Chair has contributed to high-level panels and policy initiatives to improve postharvest technology at national, continental, and global levels. Through these kinds of practical, collaborative efforts, we can apply the unique skills of agricultural and biological engineers to reduce postharvest losses, save the harvest, and feed the world. ASABE Member Umezuruike Linus Opara, Distinguished Professor and DST/NRF South African Research Chair in Postharvest Technology, Faculty of AgriSciences, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa; email@example.com. Top photo by Keith Weller, courtesy of USDA-ARS. Top inset photo Sjankauskas | Dreamstime. RESOURCE March/April 2015 7
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