Understanding smallholder’s productivity by measuring food losses, soil perception and soil variability

PhD project by Luciana Delgado Otero
This research focuses on smallholders and how the reduction of food losses can help resolve the challenges of low productivity they face today.

Agri-food systems must be transformed to provide enough quantity of healthy food for everyone in a sustainable way, including those involved in the production chain, while dealing with the dynamics of local and global economies and the environment. Transforming the agri-food systems requires a combination of research, policies, and investments to manage complex trade-offs.

Food loss and food waste have become an increasingly important topic in the development community and in the transformation of the agri-food systems. Food losses represent 14% of the global production, according to SOFA 2019. This is equivalent to $400 billion annually. In fact, the United Nations included the issue of food loss and waste in the Sustainable Development Goal target 12.3, which aims to “halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses” by 2030.

Growing populations and changing diets associated with greater wealth are increasing the pressure on the world’s available land, constituting serious threats to food security. Policies to reverse this situation have aimed mainly at increasing agricultural yields and productivity, but these efforts are often cost- and time-intensive. Greenhouse gas emissions linked with food losses are equivalent to about 1.5 gigatonnes of CO2. In addition, food loss entails excessive use of scarce resources. For example, each year 75 billion of cubic meters of water is used to produce fruits and vegetables that are not eaten. Finally, the loss of marketable food can reduce producers’ income and increase consumers’ expenses, likely having larger impacts on disadvantaged segments of the population. The losses of fruit and vegetables are equivalent to 912 trillion kilocalories and micronutrients. This is happening, as 3 billion people do not have access to healthy diets.

This research focuses on smallholders and how the reduction of food losses can help resolve the challenges of low productivity they face today. To properly understand the magnitude of losses, the research develops a definition of food loss. It then uses an innovative methodology to identify the quantity and quality of losses and where in the value chain they occur. Losses are quantified for a series of commodities produced by smallholders across several countries. The dissertation then examines the determinants behind losses across every stage of the value chain to find a solution to address them. Finally, a detailed analysis on perceptions is carried out to highlight farmers’ lack of information on soil characteristics, and how this might contribute to food loss.

This research concludes that addressing food loss across the value chain first requires a common understanding of the concept by all actors. It also emphasizes the need for collaboration to collect better micro data across different commodities and contexts. Doing so will help target interventions and identify required technologies, value chain infrastructure, and extension services to minimize losses. While there are commonalities, food loss is very context specific. The heterogeneity suggests that policies aiming at the reduction and prevention of food loss need to be developed with specific commodity and context in mind. Policymakers need to take into consideration the perception of farmers to respond to the reality they face.

The public defence of this PhD research was on Februari 15, 2022, at 4 PM Dutch time. The resulting PhD thesis is available here: