Danielle Nierenberg
Danielle Nierenberg

Targeting gaps in the food supply chain

Crossposted from the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet.

Agricultural production is only the first step in moving the world’s food from farm to fork, according to Nourishing the Planet, a project of the Worldwatch Institute. The other links in the food chain – harvesting, packaging, storing, transporting, marketing, and selling – ensure that food actually reaches consumers. Inefficiencies in these activities, rather than just low yields or poor farming techniques, are often to blame for food shortages and low prices for growers.

With the United Nations projecting a global population of more than 9 billion by 2050, increasing food chain efficiency will become ever more essential. Producers and consumers must be part of a food chain that feeds the world, provides fair prices to farmers, and works in harmony with the environment. “When groups of small farmers better organise their means of production – whether ordering the right inputs at the right time or selling their crops directly to customers – they become more resilient to fluctuations in global food prices while also better serving local communities,” said Robert Engelman, executive director of Worldwatch.

In State of the World 2011, contributing author Samuel Fromartz uses the example of corn production in Zambia to illustrate how off-farm inefficiencies exacerbate food insecurity and poverty. Poor market access, unpredictable weather patterns, and insufficient infrastructure make small-scale agriculture a high-risk livelihood. Seasons of surplus corn production can be as detrimental as low-yielding ones. Large surpluses saturate local markets, and local farmers have no alternatives for selling their product. “Many do not have the luxury of picking when to sell or whom to sell to; they are desperate and need to sell to eat. So they take whatever price they can get,” writes Fromartz.

Research done by Nourishing the Planet staff has found innovations in sub-Saharan Africa and other locations around the globe that improve market access, enhance farmer-to-farmer communication, and harness simple information technology. These improvements in the food chain provide farmers with fair prices and also help increase food security by distributing food efficiently.

Nourishing the Planet recommends three ways that agriculture is helping to address gaps in the current food supply chain:

  • Coordinating farmers. In Uganda, the organisation Technoserve works with farmers to improve market conditions for sales of bananas. Technoserve helps individuals form business groups that receive technical advice and enter into sales collectively. Coordinating business has decreased transaction costs and helped farmers market their crops and compete with larger producers more effectively. Over 20 000 farmers now participate in the project. Farmers in the United States are also banding together to increase sales efficiency and fair prices. The Chesapeake Bay regions’s FRESHFARM Markets act as an organisational umbrella under which area farmers can coordinate, market, and sell their products.
  • Increasing market transparency. In Nairobi, Kenya, the DrumNet project uses simple communication technology to provide farmers with real-time market information. Having access to market prices and sale-coordination opportunities allows farmers to receive fair prices for their crops. And the transparency increases overall sales transactions, meaning that less food goes to waste.
  • Using low-cost technology to boost efficiency. According to the UN, over 5-billion people on the planet now have a mobile phone subscription. As the cost of the technology drops, using the devices beyond personal communication makes sense. In Niger, farmers use mobile phones to access market information, an application that has reduced the fluctuation in regional grain prices by 20% and has helped ensure fair prices for producers and consumers. Similarly, the Grameen Foundation and Google have collaborated to develop Google Trader, an online bulletin board on which farmers and merchants can contact one another. The bulletin also includes applications such as “Farmer’s Friend” a tool that offers farmers information on weather, pests, and livestock management.
  • Andrew Beverley

    A farmer has an enormous task in growing a crop with so many variables to manage. His time is consumed by these immediate conditions. Distributing and marketing the produce is the last thing on the farmers mind. Often being remote and not being able to network with appropiate channels, the farmer becomes reliant on self motivated greedy independants who are aware of the farmer’s vulnerabilities and consequently the price for the produce is squeezed. Large commercial farmers can afford to employ their own agents and can negotiate more directly with the market.
    That’s why South Africa developed Co-ops for the different produces. Unforetunetly in the new South Africa these were considered monopolistic and their powers were dismantled. Can’t help thinking that the baby got thrown out with the bath water. Perhaps more thought should go into decisions before destroying such organizations as there is always a reason for them in the first place and perhaps a tweek was all that was needed.

  • MLH

    I dream of the day that one of the articles you write about these small efficiencies will feature South Africa!

  • Gail

    I did not bother to read the whole column however I believe that from field to fork efficiency is the least of our problems. The REAL problem is overpopulation globally. South Africa is not unique in this – China and India have the largest populations and greatest poverty for land and food. The REAL PROBLEM is that politicians know that tackling this problem would be their death knell. There may be large areas of our planet which are unpopulated but there is a sound reason for this and that is that the land is not arable and has no water. Of course the other side of this is that western society is not satisfied with enough to eat and shelter from the elements as it is totally materialistic.Science has actually been at the root of this by eradicating disease and prolonging life etc as well as IVF and space travel.