Foodgrain needs to stay fit for round-the-year consumption. Fruits and vegetables must stay fresh until they reach the plate. But forget all-weather warehouses or cold storage facilities, most developing countries dump millions of tonnes of food in the open at the mercy of the elements, birds and rodents. More wheat rots in India than the total production of Australia, which loses less than 1 percent of its grain in storage
WHAT DEVELOPING countries struggle to gain in the field is often lost in drippy silos and rat-infested godowns. Southeast Asian countries, for example, lose 37-80 percent of their rice, amounting to wastage of 180 million tonnes annually. With 80 percent loss, Vietnam lies at the extreme end of the spectrum, while even an economic superpower like China loses about 45 percent of its rice to poor storage.
The cycle begins in rural households that must store staple crops from their annual harvest through the year in mostly primitive facilities susceptible to attacks by rodents, insects and mould. As the development index of a country improves, the loss travels further up the supply chain, with deficiencies in regional and national infrastructure having the largest impact. In a developed country such as Australia, wastage of 0.75 percent in stored grain is at the upper end of acceptability, whereas Ghana, one of the more developed of the emerging west African economies, suffered a 50 percent loss of stored maize in 2008.
Considerably greater levels of tonnage loss are reported in other larger developing nations, including India, where inadequate storage and distribution destroys around 21 million tonnes of wheat a year — i.e., wheat equivalent to the entire production of Australia. In neighbouring Pakistan, where rodents feast in the godowns, losses amount to 16 percent or 3.2 million tonnes annually.
Developing a modern network of storage facilities involves substantial investment. If Ethiopia, for example, were to upgrade its storage infrastructure at a national scale, it would cost at least $1 billion. Also crucial is reliable power supply to run modern equipment. For instance, freshly harvested crops must be cooled before they can be stored.
Chilling strawberries in the field can extend their shelf life to as long as eight days, compared to one or two days with ambient storage. In the absence of adequate infrastructure, many less-developed nations in the warmer regions of the world — South Asia and Africa, for instance — suffer 35-50 percent post-harvest losses of fruit and vegetables annually.
Global price economics plays a role too. Many staple food items regarded as low-cost commodities are ignored. Cereals, for instance, were low on the storage radar as global prices remained relatively static, or decreased if we take inflation into account, for many years. No matter that the protein-rich, fibre-rich food, left to rot, could have fed many.
Before grain procurement began this year, India had enough surplus stock from last year — nearly 63 million tonnes in FCI godowns — to meet this year’s demand and little capacity to store the fresh purchase. Punjab, for example, had space for only 6 million tonnes, but set a purchase target of 14 million tonnes of wheat.
The story is the same in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, where TEHELKA found nothing but tarpaulin sheets covering pricey basmati and wheat stocks. We also record the success of Tamil Nadu where a chain of mini cold storages has allowed farmers across five districts to switch from annual crops to seasonal vegetables.