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Build better roads to feed more people

By Dr. Bjørn Lomborg Almost one-quarter of all food in the world is lost each year, from harvesting and storage to wastage in the consumer’s kitchen. In sub-Saharan Africa, about 21% of all food is wasted. If we could halve the sub-Saharan waste, we could feed an extra 100 million people. We can expect almost a …

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg
Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

By Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

Almost one-quarter of all food in the world is lost each year, from harvesting and storage to wastage in the consumer’s kitchen. In sub-Saharan Africa, about 21% of all food is wasted. If we could halve the sub-Saharan waste, we could feed an extra 100 million people.

We can expect almost a doubling of demand for food until 2050. This is both because the world will add another 2 billion mouths to feed, but also because of a surging new middle class will demand much more meat and dairy products, which again requires much more animal feed.

Fortunately, new analyses show that there are smart ways to reduce the world’s enormous food waste. For every dollar spent we can end up doing $13 of good ensuring more food security for the world. Interestingly, these solutions have little to do with the food waste campaigns heard through most of the rich world.

At the turn of the century, the global community agreed a set of ambitious targets – the Millennium Development Goals – which aimed to make a substantial difference to people’s lives by 2015. There have been some real successes, but there’s still plenty to be done. That’s why 193 national governments are now working to agree to a new set of targets for 2030, to be adopted by the UN in September.

Not surprisingly, there are as many proposals for targets as there are interest groups vying for attention and funding. So, to make smart choices, we have to make objective comparisons across a range of competing proposals, from healthcare and education to climate change and illicit financial transactions. One way to do that is to make an economic analysis of their benefits and costs. My think tank, the Copenhagen Consensus has asked over 60 teams of top economists to assess which targets will do the most good – and which won’t.

So, what is the best way to increase food security? This is a really vital issue because, if people aren’t properly fed, they get sick more easily and can’t work well, while children’s growth is stunted, disadvantaging them for the rest of their lives. Avoiding waste in the food chain – in the field, during processing and storage and in people’s houses – seems like a really good way to make the most of the crops a farmer grows.

In the rich world, the focus is mostly on food waste with the consumer. This makes sense, because more than half is lost in first world kitchens. But this is also because we can afford it – in the UK, the most wastage comes from salads, vegetables and fruits, which are luxury goods compared to the cheapest calories like grains and tubers eaten throughout the poor world. Likewise, smaller households waste more per person, because it is harder to put everything to use, while richer households waste more because they can afford the extra luxury of buying ‘just to be safe’.

The world’s poor lose little of their food, simply because they can’t afford to. In Africa, food waste loses 500 calories per person every day – but just 5% are lost with the consumers. Instead more than three-quarters are lost in agricultural production, both when birds and rats eat them during harvesting and when pests spoil them in storage.

There are many smart solutions – from simple curing of roots, tubers and bulbs, to expensive refrigeration. All of these technologies are very good investments in industrialised countries, so why aren’t they adopted in the developing world? In a new report, a team of economists from the International Food Policy Research Institute pointed out the main problem is lack of infrastructure. Simply put, if there are no proper roads, farmers cannot easily sell their surplus produce, which may then spoil before it can be eaten. The researchers found that four key factors could make a real difference to losses in the food chain: an electricity supply, paved roads, rail capacity and road capacity. These mean that farm produce can be sent to market and other food supplies brought in, and that grains can be dried or vegetables kept cool.

They estimate the overall cost to approximately halve post-harvest losses in the developing world would cost $239bn over the next 15 years, but it would generate benefits of just over $3,000bn, generating $13 of economic benefits for every dollar spent.

This has real-world impacts – it will bring down food prices to make food more affordable for poor people. By 2050, better infrastructure could mean that 57 million people – more than the current population of South Africa – would no longer be at risk of hunger. In particular, about 4 million children would no longer suffer from malnutrition. Most of these gains would be in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the world’s most deprived regions.

But it turns out there is an even better food target. Per dollar spent, we can achieve thrice the economic benefits and larger reductions in the number of people at risk of hunger and the number of malnourished children by focusing on higher efficiency rather than on preventing food losses.

Today, only about $5bn is spent each year on research to improve the seven major global food crops, and just 10% of that is targeted to help small farmers in Africa and Asia. Investing an extra $88bn in agricultural research and development over the next 15 years will increase yields by an additional 0.4% each year. This would reduce prices and improve food security to give nearly $3tr worth of benefits, an enormous $34 of good for every dollar spent.

We all want to help get a better world by 2030. If we listen to the economic evidence and pick the best targets, we can make sure, resources are spent doing the most good possible. The new research makes a strong case for including targets on yield research and agricultural waste to our promises.

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg, an adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School, directs the Copenhagen Consensus Center, ranking the smartest solutions to the world’s biggest problems by cost-benefit. He is the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It. His new book is How To Spend $75 Billion to Make the World a Better Place.

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