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USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service Helps Global Efforts to Reduce Food Loss and Waste: An Interview with Paige Cowie

Posted by Jean Buzby, USDA Food Loss and Waste Liaison in Food and Nutrition
Mar 22, 2021
Vegetables thrown into a landfill, rotting outdoors
Vegetables thrown into a landfill, rotting outdoors. Credit: USDA (stock photography)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) links U.S. agriculture to the world to enhance export opportunities and global food security. Globally, food waste is estimated at 1.6 billion tonnes and arises from many causes from farm to table. In developing countries, these causes include lack of cold-chain storage (refrigeration and freezing, for example), poor-post harvest handling techniques, and lack of access to markets. What is FAS doing to help reduce food loss and waste? This interview features insights from Paige Cowie, Resilient Agriculture Program Manager, USDA Foreign Agricultural Service.

Buzby: For those who don’t know much about USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, can you please share a bit about why FAS is well positioned to do food loss and waste outreach internationally?

Cowie: In addition to its headquarters staff in Washington D.C., USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service has a global network of 98 offices covering 177 countries that serve to represent U.S. agricultural trade interests. FAS engages on policies and programs on a broad range of issues related to the agri-food sector and food systems. We administer USDA’s international food assistance and international fellowship exchange programs and implement capacity building projects by drawing upon the expertise residing within USDA technical agencies, land grant universities, U.S. producers and agri-business professionals, and others. We also coordinate USDA’s involvement in the U.S. Government’s Global Food Security Strategy (“Feed the Future”), which links us to the agricultural development efforts of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the diplomatic efforts of the U.S. State Department.

FAS also leads on behalf of USDA in the negotiation of regional and bilateral trade and investment agreements which offer a key platform for enhancing the effectiveness of environmental cooperation between parties, including on efforts to sustainably manage natural resources, such as by addressing food loss and waste. We also engage with international organizations on shared priorities, such as pursuing the development of science-based metrics, guidelines, and recommendations for food loss and waste reduction.

Reducing food loss and waste was identified as one of the targets (12.3) of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. An estimated one-third of all food produced worldwide is never actually eaten due to food loss and waste issues; food loss and waste is responsible for hundreds of billions of dollars annually in economic losses and is also a significant contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. FAS is well-positioned to assist global food producers and consumers in helping to address these growing challenges.

Buzby: In general, how does FAS provide food loss and waste outreach internationally?

Cowie: Most of our food loss and waste work with other countries is supported by our interagency agreements with USAID. Under these agreements, FAS implements food loss and waste outreach activities that includes expertise from other USDA agencies, U.S. land grant universities, international research organizations, and private sector organizations.

Buzby: When thinking about the entire farm-to-table food supply chain, where do FAS programs primarily help reduce food loss and waste?

Cowie: Most of our projects and programs take place in low- and low-to-middle income countries in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Asia. In general, food loss and waste in these countries is primarily an issue of post-harvest loss rather than consumer food waste, which is more of an issue in high income countries, like the United States. At the same time, our efforts seek to address sustainability issues like climate change and agricultural resilience, as they arise in any part of the food system. For example, FAS funded a study assessing the food loss and waste-related challenges confronted by the Tanzania Horticultural Association (TAHA), including low and unequal capacities in quality management and production techniques, low produce quality and safety assurance, inadequate financial services, and unreliable transport and electricity supplies.

Tanzania Horticultural Association (TAHA) charcoal cooler
Tanzania Horticultural Association (TAHA) charcoal cooler. Photo credit: Anthony Chamanga, TAHA

After working with TAHA on addressing recommendations from the study, the farmers (many of whom are women) reported their food losses being reduced by roughly half, which was an impressive result. The main reasons for this decrease was the adoption of low-cost techniques such as screen houses that protect produce from pests, and charcoal coolers, which moderate temperatures, preserve produce, and help with food safety during storage. We also engage with other countries to address this widespread need to develop cold chain infrastructure and viable business models.

Tanzania Horticultural Association (TAHA) screenhouse
Tanzania Horticultural Association (TAHA) screenhouse. Photo credit: Anthony Chamanga, TAHA

These efforts have multiple benefits: they address food loss and waste issues; help countries increase their production efficiencies, food security goals, and climate-smart agricultural practices; and, create opportunities for supply chain actors to interact with markets at the local, regional, and international levels. Cold chain infrastructure helps countries to be better able to export and import food products needing refrigeration, thus enabling two-way trade.

The DehyTray
The DehyTray is a portable solar dehydrator device. Photo credit: Harold Tarver, USDA Project Manager

Another FAS project in Nigeria trained local university faculty and members of the private sector, such as entrepreneurs, cooperatives, and local businesses in easily adoptable postharvest loss reduction technologies and behaviors. Not only did this project enable greater quantities of harvests to be preserved for market and consumption, but the efforts also helped improve the safety and efficiency of pesticide storage practices. For example, the Dehytray is a new technology introduced by the project to help producers keep harvests clean while drying. Existing hermetic storage technologies, such as the Vestergaard Zero Fly bags and Perdue PICS hermetic bags were also introduced and promoted. Additionally, a low-cost moisture meter, based on USDA research and now manufactured in Ghana, was introduced. The FAS project in Nigeria also included training in a no-cost practice for reducing postharvest losses called DICE - Dry, Inspect, Clean, Examine. This is an Integrated Pest Management strategy for grain warehouses that could be applied in households as well.

A DehyTray demonstration at a postharvest loss reduction training in Minna, Nigeria
A DehyTray demonstration at a postharvest loss reduction training in Minna, Nigeria, July 2019. Photo credit: Harold Tarver, USDA Project Manager

Buzby: What are some examples of FAS projects aimed at reducing food loss and waste?

Cowie: In East Africa, USDA projects are supporting the adoption of an innovative bio-control product, AflaSafe, which was codeveloped through a collaboration between the USDA Agricultural Research Service and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture. AflaSafe significantly reduces widespread mold contamination in grains like corn and multiple other crops like peanuts and peppers that produce compounds called aflatoxins that are toxic to humans (1 out 3 cases of liver cancer in Africa is attributed ingestion of aflatoxins). Thus, food loss and waste innovations like AflaSafe, which are also being adapted in Pakistan, can also have critical roles for human health. Sharing these innovations also helps other countries use science-based approaches and policies to keep food safe and reduce food waste.

As another example, USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service collaborated with USAID to fund research on the use of controlled atmosphere (CA) technology that is helping farmers in India extend the storage life of certain fruits and vegetables by regulating oxygen and carbon dioxide levels as well as temperature and humidity controls within the storage unit. This technology makes it possible to preserve different cultivars of apples for 9-12 months compared to 3-6 months with normal refrigerated storage. Other less expensive and more accessible technologies also exist, such as CoolBot, which is a unit that can be used turn any room into a large refrigerator. This technology is currently in use in Rwandan markets to preserve fresh produce.

Buzby: Those are great examples of the adoption of innovations. I understand your team is working on resources to help with technology transfer -- sharing applied research with farmers and ag producers around the globe. I also understand your team is helping develop resources for businesses that are developing value chains (i.e. all the activities a business takes to produce a valuable product). Tell us more.

Cowie: Yes, supporting the development of technical guides is a common practice in FAS projects. For example, FAS is funding the development of a value-chain selection guide for educating stakeholders, including program designers and implementers, on how to identify and select crops to target for food loss and waste reduction, and how to incorporate food loss and waste planning in early project design stages. The guide provides suggestions and metrics and indicators for weighing priorities from several criteria including food loss, food waste, economic outcomes, food security and nutrition, climate vulnerability, carbon footprint, water footprint, land footprint, wildlife and biodiversity, gender, youth and socially excluded and marginalized communities, and investment opportunities.

FAS is also supporting research on insect rearing on food waste to determine if this is an efficient method for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from waste (like methane gas from landfills, for example). This could be a viable solution for repurposing food waste to grow insects as protein for food or feed. Research in this field has been growing interest in recent years, especially in relation to sustainable food systems and mechanisms for reducing GHG emissions from the agriculture sector and food that goes wasted in landfills.

Small bin of fig beetle (Cotinis mutabilis) larvae being reared on composted food waste
Small bin of fig beetle (Cotinis mutabilis) larvae being reared on composted food waste. This research was led by the University of Arizona in 2020. Photo credit: Hunter Clark

Buzby: What are the next steps for FAS for this value-chain selection guide, and is it specific for a particular country?

Cowie: The overarching goal for the value-chain selection guide is to encourage businesses to put food loss and waste in their project designs, rather than include it as an afterthought. The guide is not specific for any country but rather provides a methodology that can be applied to any country or value-chain context.

Buzby: Given an increasing emphasis on sustainability and food systems these days, do you have any additional examples of your food loss and waste activities that also have positive impacts on the environment?

Cowie: Yes, another example includes support for research into the mitigation of food loss and waste related to deforestation in Cameroon and Nigeria due to the expansion of palm oil cultivation. In Cameroon, for example, domestic demand for palm oil is high and continually growing. In the last few decades, oil palm tree area expansion by smallholders has been the leading cause of deforestation in the country. For oil extraction, manual mills are most commonly used by smallholder farmers, being a less expensive option over industrial mills. However, manual mills have a low oil extraction rate of 12%, compared to 21% for industrial mills. This research found that fostering investment in improved processing technologies is key to expanding access to sustainable palm oil production, increased efficiency, and reduced deforestation.

Buzby: All of these examples are great. Thank you so much.

For further reading:
USDA blogs on the topic of food waste

Read about USDA-supported research and webinars on food loss and waste at Climate Links, a global knowledge portal for United States Agency for International Development (USAID) staff, partners, and the broader community working at the intersection of climate change and international development.

Food Loss and Waste Value Chain Selection Guide
Reducing Food Loss and Waste in the Palm Oil Sector Can Lead to Reduced Deforestation in Cameroon
Cold Storage Business Models from Developing Countries
Growth of Tanzania’s Horticulture Sector: Role of TAHA – An Apex Private Sector Member-Based Organization

Integrating Food Loss and Waste Lens into Value Selection Workshop
Soft Launch: Food Loss and Waste Value Chain Selection Guide

This blog series highlights the work of innovators in the food loss and waste world as part of a Federal interagency food loss and waste collaboration between USDA, EPA, and FDA and private-sector partners to affirm their shared commitment to work towards the national goal of reducing food loss and waste by 50 percent by 2030.

Category/Topic: Food and Nutrition