Malaysia: Curbing food wastage at source

SUZANNA PILLAY New Straits Times 12 Jun 16;

Stopping the rot: Food which does not reach dining tables was the focus of the recent MySave Food forum jointly organised by Mardi and the FAO, Suzanna Pillay writes

MENTION post-harvest losses of produce like fruits and vegetables and the immediate thought uppermost in most Malaysians minds is: How much more are these going to cost?

By removing part of the food supply from the market, food losses contribute to high food prices, says the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations.

They also have an impact on climate change as land, water, human labour and non-renewable resources, such as fertilisers and energy, are used to produce, process, handle and transport food that nobody consumes.

Crops also lose value from incorrect harvesting, exposure to the elements and extremes of temperature, physical damage from inappropriate handling, loading packing or transportation.

According to the FAO, the distribution of food losses and waste (FLW) varies greatly by region and product. In middle and high-income countries, most of the FLW occur at distribution and consumption stages, while in low-income countries FLW are concentrated at the production and post-harvest stages. FLW peak at 280-300kg per capita per year in Europe and North America and 120-170kg per capita per year in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia.

“There are many factors contributing to the prices of fruits and vegetables. Post-harvest losses are one of the factors. It will affect the farmers’ incomes more, since farmers are not getting optimum production due to these losses,” said Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Mardi) director-general Datuk Dr Sharif Haron.

“There is no direct correlation between reduction of post-harvest losses and increase in the price of produce, but as reduction of food losses can increase the production and yield of produce, it can potentially increase the export of our agriculture products and decrease the need to import from abroad.”

In 2014, about 1.4 million tonnes of vegetables, 1.6 million tonnes of fruits and 2.6 million tonnes of padi were produced in Malaysia. Post-harvest losses for padi were around 28.5 per cent and it was found that food losses also occurred in every step of the value chain as follows — harvesting (nine per cent), milling (six per cent), drying (3.5 per cent), transportation (six per cent) and storage (four per cent).

Post-harvest losses for fruits and vegetables were around 20 to 50 per cent with production (10 to 20 per cent), field handling (five to 10 per cent), post-harvest handling (two to 20 per cent) and distribution (five to 15 per cent), with an estimated loss of between three and 20 per cent to the average consumer.

Sharif said FLW in Malaysia could be tackled by educating industry players like farmers, wholesalers and market workers on the correct technologies and standard procedures to reduce post-harvest losses.

“Farmers can improve farm activities by using technology to harvest crops at correct maturity, to provide suitable storage temperature, proper handling and packaging. By changing their attitude and increasing their knowledge and awareness through courses and training, they can also achieve this objective.”

As an example, he cited the practice of composting. Most Malaysian farmers are aware of this, but aside from organic farmers, few farmers practise this. Instead, they prefer to rely on easily available chemical fertilisers in the market for higher yields and less diseased crops.

“Farmers haven’t fully embraced composting yet because not only can they get cheaper compost from the market, but also because they lack the proper facilities and space to do it. They do not have sufficient raw materials to be composted, plus it is a time-consuming process with high labour cost.”

Sharif also recommended that farmers use pesticides on their crops judiciously.

“The majority of the farmers are using pesticides to minimise the infestation of pest in the field. Indirectly, it helps to reduce losses.

“However, over-application of pesticides will cause higher losses due to rejection of the produce by the authority.”
Mardi’s recommendations to reduce post-harvest losses are: for farmers to adopt the numerous post-harvest technologies and handling systems that have been developed by Mardi and other organisations.

Farmers could be reintroduced to the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) systems.
“The former is an ecologically- based pest-control strategy that relies heavily on natural mortality factors, such as weather, natural enemies and seeks out control tactics that disturb these factors as little as possible.

“GAP refers to a farm management system implemented according to standards and laws or regulations to control or reduce the hazard, risk and impact of agricultural production to produce quality and safe food, while taking into account economical, social and environmental sustainability.

“Both systems not only increase farmers’ income and production yield, but also reduce health risks to humans and harm to the environment,” he added.

For the benefit of key players in the food value chain, Sharif said there should also be more training on how to reduce food losses through short courses; collaborations with ministries, extension agencies, private sector (exporters and distributors) and government-linked companies to reduce food losses under the MySaveFood Initiative or other initiatives; as well as partnerships with international agencies to improve research based on knowledge-sharing and creating awareness programmes.

Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority (Fama) deputy director-general Mansor Omar said food losses in the production and distribution segments of the food supply chain were mainly caused by the functioning of the food production and supply system or its institutional and legal framework.

Fama’s 3P System for adoption and implementation by farmers, which stands for grading, packaging and labelling, will ensure traceability of all produce marketed.

He said a Fama 2014 study on post-harvest losses of fruits and vegetables in Malaysia showed a 4.09 to 13.19 per cent loss at farm level for vegetables, a 0.69 to six per cent loss at the wholesalers and a 1.60 to 4.29 per cent loss at retailers.

Fruit losses ranged from 4.24 to 11.91 per cent at farms, 1.03 to 4.67 per cent at the wholesalers and 0.5 to 6.32 per cent at retailers.

Cameron Highlands Malay Farmers Association chairman Syed Abdul Rahman Syed Abdul Rashid said post-harvest handling of vegetables in the highlands had come a long way in the last 30 years.

The highlands produce 600 tonnes of vegetables daily and yearly production values of vegetables are estimated at RM600 million.

Seventy per cent is consumed locally, while 25 per cent is exported to Singapore and five per cent to countries, such as Hong Kong, United Arab Emirates and the Maldives.

“There has been much improvement and losses have been reduced to almost half over the period.

However, post-harvest losses are still relatively high, ranging from five to 30 per cent.

“From the farm to the table, losses occur at several stages, starting from field production to in-field handling, packaging and storage, marketing and distribution to consumption.”

Besides unstable and low vegetable prices, increase in cost of production, losses due to poor post-harvest handling and packaging, pest and disease, pollution of food from the environment and losses due to pesticide residue on crops are also major issues.

“Crops with residue are not harvested, while marketed produce with high pesticide residue are rejected and destroyed.
“Unregistered pesticides used in Cameron Highlands are estimated to be high, at between RM50 million and RM100 million per year, and may be the reason for pollution in the rivers.”

To overcome the problem, he suggested teaching farmers the right usage of pesticides, biological controls, IPM and GAP.
Apart from providing training support to farmers, he said facilitating access to credit and other supportive policies that promote the ease of doing business would be desirable.

His association is looking at recycling, measures to reduce soil erosion, retraining the farmers on correct pesticide use, re-introducing IPM and GAP and getting certification via the Organic Certification Scheme.

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