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Far too much food wasted, experts say

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The World Food Prize/Borlaug Dialogue held in Des Moines, Iowa, each October is an award and conference named in honour of the late Norman Borlaug, the American plant scientist who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his development of higher-yielding "Green Revolution" wheats for India.

Understandably, much of the dialogue is around the familiar theme of how to double food production by 2050 to feed what is now expected to be a global population of 9.6 billion, with many focusing on seed as the chosen instrument.

"Every farmer in the world knows what to do with a seed. The barriers to adoption are very, very low and the ability to reap benefit is high," said Robb Fraley, Monsanto's chief biotechnology officer and one of this year's World Food Prize laureates.

But there is growing acknowledgement of the sad irony of Borlaug's legacy. Much of his good work is literally going to waste.

"Twenty-one million tonnes of wheat is wasted each year because we don't have the infrastructure," Ashok Gulati, chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices for the government of India, told a seminar at this year's dialogue.

"Eighty to 90 per cent of the policy environment is produce more, produce more, produce more, but the issue is what happens after that, and it's horrendous," Gulati said.

Yemi AkinBamijo, the executive director for the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), said up to 60 per cent of the crops produced in Africa doesn't reach the marketplace. Dealing with post-harvest losses alone would dramatically reduce the need for increased production, he said. It's estimated that worldwide, more than 30 per cent of food production is wasted.

In our part of the world, food waste is a cultural problem. We take preserving post-harvest quality and getting food to market for granted with our cold, dry climate to help control insects and a handling and transportation network that runs like clockwork.

Other parts of the world lack the basics, such as roads and electricity. Producers can't easily access credit for inputs such as seed and fertilizer. Marketing chains are poorly developed.

That exposes the other inconvenient truth about focusing mainly on production -- enhancing technology to feed the world. Despite huge productivity increases, the number of hungry and malnourished in the world isn't dropping. Most of the hungry are self-employed as small-scale farmers or vendors. They, more than any other sector, are key to not only eradicating hunger but to unleashing a country's economic growth.

In poorer countries, most farmers are smallholders with five acres or less. Street vendors use push carts and typically have one day to sell fresh goods before they spoil. Gulati said solutions for these entrepreneurs can't be so big or expensive they are squeezed out of the picture. "Instead of trampling on these people, they can be a force for change."

Frances Moore Lappé, whose 1971 book Diet for a Small Planet pioneered the notion of ethical eating, also addressed the conference and warned against using scarcity as a reason for increasing food production.

"It is a fear-driven message that there is not enough and we must narrow our focus more and more in order that we keep up this race with population growth," she said. "We go along with a power-concentrating market, driven by one rule -- highest rate of return to existing wealth."

Lappé criticized "almost unthinkable extremes" of concentration of ownership in the food system, noting three companies control 53 per cent of the global commercial seed market.

"So concentrating power that is disempowering billions inevitably creates the experience of scarcity, no matter how much we grow."

This year's World Food Prize went to three pioneers of genetically modified seed technology, including representatives of Monsanto and Syngenta. That drew protests, which some biotechnology proponents labelled an anti-science backlash. Lappé disagreed.

"For me, genetically modified organisms not only fail to address hunger, but they contribute to the concentration of power that is at the root of hunger," Lappé said.

"The protest over this year's prize, it is not just about the seed, it is about the system."

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email at laura@fbcpublishing.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 26, 2013 B10

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