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Unisea Pollack processing plant Dutch Harbor, Unalaska Island, Aleutian Islands, Alaska, United States of America
Food Supply Chains

Interventions to reduce food loss and waste and to decarbonize supply chain activities in transport, processing and distribution.

Reducing post-harvest food loss at storage, transport, and processing levels


Food loss is generally defined as the decrease in quality or quantity of food resulting from decisions and actions of food supply chain actors, not including food retailers or consumers. Post-harvest food loss refers to the loss of food across the food supply chain from harvesting up until (but not including) the retail and consumption stages. Estimates around food loss vary widely; the FAO estimates that 13.8% of food produced globally is lost between the farm up to but excluding the retail stage. Minimizing global post-harvest food loss is important for climate change mitigation and adaption as well as related global development issues such as food insecurity and poverty.

Concrete measures to implement

Measures to tackle post-harvest food loss range from specific technological solutions in storage, transport and processing, to sectoral policy interventions. They can include:

  • Storage measures, such as:
    • Investment in cold storage facilities. It is estimated that 526 million tons of perishable foods were spoiled in 2017 globally because of lack of refrigeration.
    • Promotion of storage technologies such as hermetic storage (i.e. sealed, waterproof, and airtight storage systems such as metal silos).
    • Investment in warehouse receipt systems, where food from farms is taken to modern and centralized storage areas.
    • Establishment of aggregation centers for storing and preserving food at multiple temperature levels.
    • Promotion of field storage clamps, a low-cost storage alternative for crops such as potatoes, turnips, sugar beets, and others. Clamp is a compact heap, mound, or pile of material and formed by excavating a shallow rectangular depression in the field to create the base of the clump and straw or old hay can be used to cover the top protecting from rain erosion.
  • Distribution and transportation measures, including:
    • Promotion of improved packing practices and packaging technologies by:
      • Establishing national standards for food packaging and proper enforcement of standards.
      • Building awareness of the most effective packing techniques/technologies and promoting the development of skills necessary to implement these behaviors and technologies.
      • Providing financial resources (e.g. subsidies) to actors along the supply chain who could benefit from implementing these practices/technologies.
    • Promotion of transportation materials that can safely transport crops to distant markets, such as natural and synthetic fibre sacks and moulded plastic boxes. This is especially relevant for high-perishability crops (e.g. crops with high moisture content).
  • Processing and handling measures, for example:
    • Promotion of processing methods/technologies that can extend shelf life of products such as drying, smoking, salting, fermenting, pickling, canning and food irradiation.
    • Promotion of Dry Chain technologies, which dry products before storage and maintain seed dryness through hermetic packaging.
    • Promotion of proper handling practices along the supply chain that can reduce contamination of products.
  • Cross-cutting measures, for example:
    • Use of phase change materials (PCMs) to maintain products within a desired temperature range and thus maintain the quality of the products as they move along the supply chain. PCMs range from more natural and/or organic materials such as gelatin to more synthetic materials such as polystyrene. PCMs can reduce emissions associated with cold chains by increasing energy efficiency of storage (see Reducing emissions from food storage, cold chains, transport and processing) and distribution operations as well as by reducing food loss.
    • Promotion of food monitoring and tracing technologies to reduce supply chain inefficiencies and improve knowledge of where food losses are occurring along food supply chains. Measures to build more efficient and intelligent value chains include: vertical integration; expanded contracting from retailers and wholesalers; computer-based modelling and monitoring systems that optimize transportation scheduling and routes; and funding methods to lessen information constraints and bottlenecks.
    • Creating incentives for companies to measure food loss and waste and implement food loss and waste policies, for example through success cases demonstrating possible cost savings, company reporting and disclosure to investors, or third-party monitoring.
  • Broader policy measures, for example:
Maintaining a "cold chain" through the use of ice, freshly caught fish remain fresh all the way from processing to vacuum packing to storage and shipping. Sarangani, Southern Mindanao, Philippines, 2 May 2010

Enabling governance measures

Effective implementation of post-harvest food loss measures should be guided and incentivized through national governance and policy reforms. The following governance measures can serve to enable the deployment of food loss reduction measures:

  • Reform agricultural policies (e.g. introduce market-based measures or subsidies) to enable the design and implementation of improved technologies for food storage, processing and transportation.
    • For example, policies that support R&D and innovative business models can unlock investments in more energy-efficient cold chains methods.
  • Raise awareness and train supply chain actors on the best available technologies for reducing food loss, and how available subsidy programmes can be deployed to reduce barriers to uptake of these new technologies.
  • Improve transportation infrastructure (roads, bridges and so on) to enable efficient transportation and distribution of products.
  • Provide incentives for the production, import and use of transport solutions that explicitly offer food waste reduction solutions, such as refrigeration.
  • Bring global practitioners together to create knowledge sharing and best practice exchange on post-harvest food loss reduction strategies. This could be facilitated through global conferences co-organized by relevant global institutions (FAO, UNEP, IFAD, WFP, etc.) and supported by national governments. These could provide a key platform for building capacity to achieve global food loss goals (e.g. through development of a facilitating mechanism for SDG 12.3 and other food loss-related SDGs).

Tools and MRV systems to monitor progress

Climate change mitigation benefits

Use of improved food storage technologies to reduce food loss/waste avoids greenhouse gas emissions from food that would go to landfill as well as from lowered need to produce food:

Other climate benefits

  • Reduced land use change: pressure to convert natural ecosystems for agriculture reduced as post-harvest losses could translate to more available food for sell and consumption and to better income and economic wellbeing for households and businesses.
  • Reduced air pollution: food waste is diverted from landfills where they may be burned.

Adaptation co-benefits

Other sustainable development co-benefits

  • SDG 1 (no poverty) by improving income from food production.
  • SDG 2 (end hunger) by improving food availability.
  • SDG 12 (ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns), in particular SDG 12.3 to “by 2030, 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.” 
  • SDG 13 (climate change) by avoiding emissions from food loss.
  • SDG 8 (sustainable economic growth and decent employment) by generating employment and income opportunities through processing and marketing, as well as reducing labor costs in developing countries.
  • Less direct SDG benefits could fall under: 
    • SDG 6 (sustainable water management).
    • SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities).
    • SDG 14 (marine resources).
    • SDG 15 (terrestrial ecosystems, forests, land and biodiversity). 
    • SDG 10 (reducing inequalities).
  • Progress on other SDGs could ultimately lead to reduced food loss/waste, including:
    • SDG 5 (gender equality).
    • SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy).
    • SDG 9 (infrastructure, industry, and innovation).
    • SDG 17 (partnerships).

Main implementation challenges and potential negative externalities and trade-offs

  • Technologies such as improved packaging may require additional costs in labour and require capacity building to ensure proper use. Without the availability of tailored financial solutions, access to finance to deploy them may be a barrier.
  • Relatively high up-front costs for producers and other supply chain actors of some of the post-harvest solutions could translate into higher food prices for consumers. However, this price pressure may be counterbalanced by improved food quality and higher supply.
  • Some post-harvest loss interventions may not be currently financially viable in developing countries due to high degree of seasonality of produce, which means that solutions like cold-storage facilities are not used year-round.
  • Cold storage facilities use considerable amounts of energy, so expanding their use will likely lead to increases in emissions unless powered by clean energy sources. 
  • Increased use of packaging to reduce food losses could lead to increased GHG emissions associated with production of packaging materials as well as increased plastic waste.
  • Reduced food losses in post-farm stages of supply chains may result in farmers seeing reduced demand for their products and thus lower incomes. At the same time, this may be counterbalanced by higher prices attained for higher quality, fresh produce.

Measures to minimize challenges and address potential negative externalities and trade-offs

  • Additional costs from purchasing and use of improved technologies could be offset through subsidies or support from wealthier governments or institutions. 
  • Investing in cold storage facilities and storage systems powered by renewable energy and/or with more efficient energy usage. For more information, see Reducing emissions from food storage, cold chains, transport and processing.
  • Increased food prices as a result of food loss interventions could be offset through subsidies and/or implementation of social programmes targeted towards low-income consumers.
  • In terms of reducing the impacts of increased use of packaging, LCAs can be implemented to assess the entire packaging-product system and evaluate the environmental impacts of packaging interventions. For example, in some cases it may be possible to replace single-use packaging/storage materials with reusable packaging/storage materials. 
  • Negative impact on suppliers’ incomes from a reduced demand for food due to reduced food loss could be offset through targeted financial support. In addition, programmes that encourage farmers shift to new supply chains with higher value produce may help diversify farmer incomes.

Implementation costs

  • Up-front investment and annual operating costs are generally high for cold storage facilities, making them less accessible for developing countries because of access to finance barriers.
  • Metal silos can have a high initial cost, which presents an obstacle for adoption by smallholders. Community-level silos could be an economic alternative, as the cost per unit of grains decreases with increases in the size of silos. The maintenance cost is very low for silos, which can compensate for the high initial cost to some extent.

Intervention in practice

  • Uganda developed a national strategy to reduce postharvest losses in grain supply chains as part of the larger Ugandan National Food Waste Strategy. The development of the strategy was informed by FAO’s food loss analysis methodology as well as multi-stakeholder consultations. Key strategic issues and feasible solutions for reducing postharvest losses of grains in Uganda can be applicable to other national contexts in Africa. 
  • The FAO’s Technical Cooperation Programme has introduced improved bulk packaging materials such as reusable crates as well as guidance for improved post-harvest management practices to reduce food losses in supply chains of fresh produce in various South Asian countries. The intervention significantly reduced food losses and led to economic benefits and overall improved welfare for farmers, retailers and consumers. It also led to environmental benefits through the replacement of single-use plastic bags for transport with reusable crates. 
  • The FAO pioneered a technique to smoke and dry fish, the FAO-Thiaroye Technique (FTT). This technique can be used regardless of climatic conditions and increases the range of species that can be processed, strengthening fish processors’ resilience to climate variability. It can result in a near-complete elimination of food losses in the processing stage while enhancing the quality and safety of the products. For example, in Côte d’Ivoire, the technique is estimated to save USD 1.7 million annually through reduced losses of smoked fish products.


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