Efficient marketing, processing and distribution systems can make a vital contribution to food security by helping to ensure that people have access to the food they need, at prices they can afford. At the same time, post-harvest activities make an important contribution to national employment and income.
THE FOOD CHAIN that stretches from the farm to the table is made up of many links. If any one of these is broken or obstructed, the effect on prices and availability of food can be drastic. Often, the severest consequences are felt by the poorest families.
A large share of the food produced in developing countries never reaches the consumers. In many countries, a virtual absence of support services and marketing information impedes effective decision-making about planting, harvesting or processing. Farmers may produce crops in excess of the actual demand, or they may all produce at one time, flooding the market. The lack of appropriate storage and processing facilities and techniques prevents preservation of seasonal surpluses.
Farmers' investments in production become more costly and risky when marketing, storage and distribution are inefficient. When local markets are lacking, for instance, produce cannot be sold. The rural markets that do exist often lack basic infrastructure such as shelter from the elements, resulting in losses from spoilage and in contamination, with consequent health risks.
Transport often represents a major component of the final cost of food. Prices can become prohibitive when transport costs exceed the value of the produce. Spoilage rates soar when trucks taking produce to market must slowly navigate around potholes on crumbling rural roads. Bad roads also cause greater wear and tear on vehicles, the cost of which is ultimately borne by consumers.
Where the consumers will be
Explosive urban growth presents challenges for food supply and distribution, as a shrinking rural population must feed an expanding city population.
A SIDE FROM making food readily available, rural markets enhance local food security by providing a source of income for agricultural and non-agricultural labourers and artisans. In the cities, markets provide access to a diversified food supply throughout the year. The importance of marketing, processing and distribution is expected to increase with growing urban populations. Between 1985 and 2010, it is estimated that rural populations in developing countries will grow annually by 0.8 percent, while those of the cities will expand by 3.4 percent. This will mean that by the year 2010, all the major world regions will be heavily urbanized. There will be some 200 cities with populations of over one million and 21 "megacities" with populations of over ten million people.
Although much scope remains for food production in pert-urban areas and home gardens, most of the food to meet the demands of the cities will come from more distant areas. Production of cereals alone is expected to increase by about 472 million tonnes, a good part of which will be for urban consumption. To fortify the food chain, rural-urban linkages will have to be improved and new markets will have to emerge - in producing areas, for assembly, and in urban areas for wholesale and retail sales.
A market in Asia
GROWTH IN agro-related industries can help to reduce the flow of people from the country to the cities by creating employment opportunities for them close to where the food is produced. Processing already provides employment for millions of rural people, in particular women, for whom it is often the main source of income. Innovative. cost-effective and simple processing techniques can also make an enormous difference in food availability, reducing post-harvest losses, providing an outlet for surplus food, and allowing the poor to make it through periods of food scarcity. In addition, processing allows for greater variety in the diet and can help alleviate problems of disease by improving food safety.
MARKETING, processing and distribution are dynamic processes that must be responsive to the changing environment in which food is produced and consumed. Evolving cultural patterns, fashions, domestic priorities and many other factors can affect demand for food, while a host of natural and man-made circumstances determine its availability.
Adequate information flows help to ensure that improved post-harvest systems are geared to real needs and demands, and are both economically and socially feasible. Feedback on consumers' needs and preferences helps farmers to make better informed decisions about planting, harvest and, in the case of some forest products, gathering and selling.
Reliable market information allows them to tailor supply to match demand, minimizing food wastage and financial losses that result from over-production.
On the other hand, technical innovations must be carefully studied to avoid negative impact, especially on women and on the poor. In one African country, for example, the arrival of village-based threshing and winnowing machines meant the loss of traditional "gleaning" rights for the women who had previously carried out this work manually. Information on users and their needs can help to ensure that technologies are appropriate within the particular circumstances of the areas where they are introduced.
WHILE IT is generally recognised that direct intervention in produce marketing is not the best way to support farmers, indirect support is necessary, especially in countries undergoing structural changes that affect the post-harvest system. Farmers continue to rely heavily on governments to:
Most important is to ensure a clear and stable policy and macro-economic environ ment in which the private sector can rapidly respond to opportunities. For the poor and the hungry, improvements in the efficiency of the food chain are vital measures that can make the difference in their day-to-day subsistence, enabling them to break the vicious circle of hunger and poverty.
What Women and Their Families Have to Gain
In most developing countries, women are heavily involved in all phases of post harvest activity. Improvement in marketing, processing and distribution systems will not only better their lot. It will most certainty be reflected in improvements in the food security of their households. Studies show that women spend a significant part of their income - proportionately much higher than the amount spent by men on food for the family.
As more and more men migrate to the. cities in search of employment, the availability of good-quality, affordable processed food can help to ease women's heavy workload, Lessening the time and energy needed for meal preparation.
The history of potato production in Bangladesh underlines the importance of post-harvest systems. In 1990, e Government of Bangladesh - with assistance from Canada and the Netherlands - set up a programme to expand production of potatoes and other vegetables. By 1993/94, potato yields had risen from 10.0 to 18.1 million tonnes per hectare, much of which was consumed by the farm families that grew them.
Major problems ensued, -however, as potato production continued to expand. Insufficient attention had been paid to the post-harvest system from the outset. Demand for potatoes among non-farm families was not high enough to absorb production during the particularly prolific 1994/1995 season, and storage facilities for the surplus were seriously wanting. As a result, many farmers experienced losses and even stopped growing the crop.
For further information, please contact:
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, 00100 Rome, Italy
Information Division, Tel: (39-6) 5225-3276/5225-4781/5225-4243
Marketing and rural Finance Service, Tel: (39-6) 5225-3817
Internet, http://www.fao.org or gopher.fao.org