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

Delgado Otero, Luciana


Growing populations and changing diets associated with greater wealth increase 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. 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 (FLW) is one essential element of the agri-food system transformation, which touches not only the productivity efficiency of using natural resources but also the reduction of Greenhouse gas emissions. FLW, as a result, has become an increasingly important topic in the development community. Food losses represent 14% of global production (FAO, 2019). This is equivalent to US$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. 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 cubic meters of water are 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 population segments. 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 dissertation focuses on smallholders and how reducing food losses can help resolve the challenges of low productivity they face today and have a positive effect on nature and the environment. This dissertation tries to resolve four challenges on food losses reduction. The first challenge of reducing food loss and waste is that there is no agreement among experts on the definition of food loss and waste. Various terms — such as "post-harvest loss" and "food loss" and "food waste" — are used interchangeably, even though they do not refer to the same concept. Generally, food loss is defined as unintentional reductions in food quantity or quality that occur between the production and distribution stages of the value chain. Food waste refers to food suitable for human consumption but is deliberately discarded.

The second challenge I try to resolve is the measurement of food losses. The causes of food loss and waste can be traced back to the early stages of the value chain, all the way to harvest or even pre-harvest. When measuring losses, these highlights need to consider the food value chain as a system of interdependent stages. This dissertation tested four methodologies, i.e., subjective, attributes, categories, and price methods. After implementing them in several countries and commodities, it was found that the category and attribute methods are the most consistent and better identify the magnitudes of losses across the value chain. 

Once the magnitude and identifying where in the value chain losses occur, the next challenge is identifying the causes and determinants of food loss. The different value chain stages are seen as an integral part of agri-food systems. The value chain stages where losses occur may not be where the interventions should be targeted if the causes of the losses happen at earlier stages. Identifying quality losses and their determinants along the value chain is particularly important in a system-based approach. The loss of quality may translate into a loss of quantity at a later stage of the value chain and loss of nutritional and economic value.

Finally, the last challenge was to understand how much farmers' perceptions on the problems they face converge the reality and what policymakers do as a first approximation on how we should approach solving the problems behind food losses. To achieve this, I carry out an ex-ante analysis to determine how much soil perception and soil variability limit adoption. The final goal is to design better policies to crop productivity. I measure the gap between smallholder farmers' perceptions of their soil characteristics and the soil variability and identify that smallholder farmers have significant misperceptions of soil characteristics. Improving farmers' understanding of soil quality is necessary to accelerate the adoption of technological packages, such as fertilizers and seeds. In addition, reducing policymakers' information gap with respect to the real needs of farmers will make policies more effective, resulting in higher adoption rates of new technologies and increased productivity. This could also lead to food loss reduction at the pre-harvest level.