Food Waste and its Impact on SmallHolder Farmers

More than one in 10 people alive on this planet today do not have enough food- suffering from a lack of calorie intake and protein, two billion people also dealing with a deficiency in micronutrients. The situation is even worse for children: regarding all children under five, a third of them suffer malnutrition and inadequate food supplies, causing impaired growth and development. 

Tragically, the reason for this situation is not solemnly based on the fact that there is not enough food available- as around a quarter of all food produced for human consumption is not used due to food waste and post-harvest loss! This comes at a high cost- socially and humanitarian, but also economically and ecologically. 8% of the global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by food production that never even reaches our table, costing close to 1 trillion dollars- annually!

What is Smallholder Farming?

While the social outcome affects all people equally, the financial burden falls back to those producing the foods- and those who suffer the most are smallholder farmers. This way of farming makes up huge parts of the global food production system, especially in the developing world, which is especially affected by insufficient food supply and malnutrition. The farms are usually family operated, situated in rural areas and contain two or less hectares of land. While the usage of low-tech farming operations is still dominant, technological innovations are on the rise, especially when it comes to marketing through the internet, smartphones and apps. While the production scale is usually quite small, there are many benefits of smallholder farming: largely independent cultivation, a lot of biodiversity and few monoculture planting provides resilience against climate crisis and external shocks to food production. So-called micro farmers only use their crops for self consumption, while others plant staples for their own food supply while selling vegetables on the market. Medium-scale farmers specialize in supplying local markets with staples, fruit, vegetables and chicken. Only a few of them produce crops for export when it comes to every-day staples. On the contrary, huge amounts of the global consumption of cocoa products, including chocolate, or other convenience products still originate from smallholder farmers.

In the process of harvesting, drying, storing, transporting, marketing and selling, a multitude of losses add up to a significant reduction of food supplies. While post harvest loss can be described qualitatively, entailing nutritive value, grain viability and brewing ability, a quantitative approach is used more often to facilitate an analysis of occurring losses and potential opportunities. 

Post-harvest Systems and Value Addition

The wide variety of challenges faced, as well as the amount of stakeholders involved in the process of getting food supplies from the farm to the table, makes up what is collectively called a post harvest system.  They do not only link producer and consumer, but rural and urban areas. Thereby, they make use of a variety of markets, technologies and organizations, all playing their role in providing a (more or less) stable food supply chain. The big variation of factors involved indicates the diverse range of innovation that is needed to ultimately tackle the various problems currently leading to immense post-harvest loss and food waste. They entail solutions in engineering, food science, marketing and pest and disease management. 

Post harvest systems can typically be divided into two categories: perishables, including tubers, fruits and vegetables are sold shortly after the harvest. Durables like cereals and legumes on the other hand are usually dried and preserved for many months, sometimes even years. They are harvested in bulk once or twice a year and undergo a specific process to enable their long-term storage. Regarding cereals, a major risk factor for post-harvest food loss is the drying process, as a high moisture content can easily cause deterioration during storage, oftentimes caused by fungal growth. Therefore, a fast-drying process is anticipated while avoiding too intense heat. During the primary processing, crops have to be shelled- mostly by hand or simple machines. The labor intensity of this production step highly depends on the sort and size of grain, as well as on the intended usage. Shelling of crops used as seeds has to be more carefully done than those for human consumption or even animal food to minimize physical damage. An optional step of processing is the use of synthetic or natural protectant against insects and pests. Factors that are involved in the decision making on whether or not to use them come down to cost and availability of the protectant, but also experience, knowledge, planned duration of storage and the sort of crop. Usually, insects only seriously damage stored crops after a period of 4 months of storage or longer. But if it occurs, substantial amounts of the original harvest can be affected, sometimes causing up to 30% of the original grains to get spoiled. Taken together, the annual loss in cereal production in sub-Saharan Africa due to these causes would be enough to cover the calorie intake required to feed 48 million people for one year.

Secondary processing is a step in the value addition chain that aims to either increase the nutritional value or the market value of the commodity. This could happen in the form of milling, which is mostly performed using hammer-mills in sub-Saharan Africa. It is not always performed, and also very variable when it comes to the point of time. Depending on factors like the sort of crop, indented duration of storage, time of years and environmental factors, it can either happen before or during storage or even right before selling. 

To effectively sell the available produce in local marketing systems that ultimately supply the domestic customer, smallholder farmers urgently need informational resources and communication tools that enable them to adequately adjust both the amount of produce and its price to daily changing market dynamics. These changes underlie multiple factors like trade policies and taxes on the governmental scale, transport options, seasonal quality and quantity of produce and hardly predictable influences like the number of traders and their behavior.

Smallholder Farming and Environmental Conservation

Due to poverty, environmental conservation often falls short in the daily struggle of smallholder farmers to earn enough income to feed their families. The long term consequences are fatale: land that might still be fertile right now is likely to lose its productivity within a few years, leaving the farmers with no alternatives. This pressing issue highlights the importance of building capacities to not only access information, but to put it into practice and thereby make long lasting change possible that will ultimately support food security systems for future generations.

Discovering Opportunities to Decrease Food Waste in Smallholder Farming

At the scale of smallholder farmers, many of the challenges arise from a lack of access to both resources of economical, natural and technical nature and knowledge and skill required to process, store and sell their produce in the most efficient way. This situation is intensified by insufficient infrastructure. Even nearby markets are hard to reach as means of transportation are scarce, especially when carrying perishable produce. Export of products to international markets is made extremely difficult by high standards and requirements applicable to food products especially in Europe and the United States. Even if the products technically live up to the requirements, getting the mandatory certificates is mostly not possible due to costly processes and high bureaucratic hurdles.

While access to simple and affordable technology as well as financial and governmental support on local, national and international levels could greatly improve both yields and post harvest systems for smallholder farmers, providing profound education and information on how to use the resources already available seem to bear great potential. In agricultural education, if available at all, this topic has been greatly underrepresented in the past. Innovative strategies that take socio-political, scientific and agro-economical conditions into account need to be adapted to the needs and resources available to the stakeholders. By providing training on topics like agribusiness, marketing, agro-processing, post harvest technology and value addition, the building stone can be laid to impact factors directly related to post-harvest systems. Concretely, it is important to inform about the importance of prompt harvesting, drying processes, protection against rain while drying, the building and maintenance of storage structures, storage and hygiene, correct estimations of food stock requirements as well as packaging and transportation options. Furthermore, education on community development, leadership, informational and communicational technologies as well as on human resource management is crucial to create long lasting changes in rural communities of smallholder farmers.

Gender and diversity in postharvest systems

Women are not only the main actor when it comes to buying and processing food to provide adequate nutrition for their families. They also play an important role in harvest handling and storage of crops in the food supply chain. Modernization brings both advantages and challenges for their roles. While the usage of mechanical hammer mills takes the hard work of pounding grains into flour from their shoulders, it also removes employment opportunities for poorer women. As the mills are typically operated by men, there is no sufficient alternative employment created to support them in earning their livelihood.

Cocoa Production in Ghana

While grains and commodities are mainly suffering from food loss in the processes after harvesting, other crops face challenges already during plantation. Among others, these effects apply to the production of cocoa, being mainly in the hands of smallholder farmers. Still, Ghana’s cocoa production is the source of more than 60% of the world’s chocolate supply, and an excellent example for the challenges- and opportunities- that come with smallholder farming, being the backbone of this enormous value chain supplying the whole world with the possibly most loved treat. Currently, there is a big focus on the rehabilitation of already existing cocoa trees. More and more difficulties occur as the trees get older, thereby providing less yield every year. Additionally, disease is causing increasing problems. To counteract this threat to the whole economy, the importance of training in education can not be underestimated. The improvement of soils, pest and disease control and fertilizer use are only the first step to ensure that existing land can be used to the best of it’s opportunities, preventing farmers from further deforestation for new planting, harming the fragile ecosystems. This process can be supported by so-called “renovation of the cocoa”, when older trees are replaced by younger, disease-free seedlings. The challenge primarily lies in the access to these resources; not to mention financial shortcomings that do not allow such investments. 

With the climate getting hotter, small holder farmers in the northern regions of the country find themselves in serious difficulties as heat and drought risk the cocoa yields, pushing the cocoa production further south. To escape this death sentence for their existing businesses, adequate training can make an important difference: Other trees and plants that can be grown on the same land as cocoa, like papaya and avocado trees, are ideal to provide shade and thereby allow cocoa to thrive even in temperatures that would otherwise be too high. Additional side effects are reduced weed growth and boosted soil fertility, alongside the availability of timber and extra crops produced by the shade trees. To further encourage such diversification, access to markets and business opportunities including these additional resources have to be supported and provided. Ultimately, the bottleneck of financial hardships has to be tackled by granting accessible loans, governmental support and financial training.


Written by Lea Maria Beinbauer

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