Food Loss and Waste in Fish Value Chains
©FAO/Aina Randrianantoandro

Some considerations for the development and adoption of appropriate technologies for reducing food loss and waste in the aquatic food value chain

By Kennedy Bomfeh

Justifiable concern continues to rise on the 30% of global food production that is lost or wasted. This level of food loss and waste (FLW) is equivalent to 1.3 billion tons of food and one trillion dollars each year. This is a loss humanity would be better off without, considering that over 800 million people face chronic hunger today. All countries – developing, transition and industrialized – are faced with this costly challenge of utilizing less food than is produced. Due to this global character of the problem, a global commitment is required for it to be decisively addressed. It is worthwhile, therefore, that the SDGs include halving food waste at the consumer level and achieving overall loss reduction along production and supply chains as a specific target to be achieved by 2030.

As the factors that account for FLW vary by context, so may the solutions proposed for their reduction. Contextual peculiarities notwithstanding, some general elements apply. For example, FLW reduction strategies typically centre on upstream and downstream activities. Upstream, the emphasis is often on more efficient primary production, processing and distribution methods to reduce losses up to the retail point, while downstream activities usually involve consumer advisory to reduce food waste from the retail point onwards. Examples of consumer advisory includes an FAO message discouraging the discard of food deemed to have an imperfect shape, highlighting that a carrot is a carrot and can function as such regardless of its shape; and a Monaghan County Council message demonstrating that food waste equals money waste. Thus, upstream, responsible production, processing and distribution are pursued, while downstream, social behaviour change communication is used to encourage responsible consumption.

Whether considering upstream or downstream mitigation strategies, the development and use of appropriate technologies remain a viable option for FLW reduction. However, the “appropriate” in the term should not be glossed over. From the design stage, the anticipated efficacy of the innovation should be viewed within the limits of the local constraints and the overall direction of global commitments and approaches for reducing FLW. Factors such as the local food culture, food safety, market incentives, environmental impact and gender sensitivity should be satisfactorily addressed for the technologies to be considered appropriate.

For example, concerning food culture, around the 1960s, an innovative fish smoking kiln called the Altona stove was introduced in Ghana as an appropriate technology to reduce fish post-harvest losses and reduce the drudgery associated with the use of traditional kilns. The innovation required fish to be skewered through the eyes and hanged over a heat source for cooking and smoke flavouring. However, processors were accustomed to arranging fish flat on grills during processing. Consumers were also unaccustomed to whole fish that had no eyes and thus considered products from the innovation alien. That consumer reaction was an early sign of a poor market response to products from the kiln. Consequently, processors were unwilling to adopt it. Thus, although the new technology held the promise of decent work, higher throughput and reduced post-harvest losses (hence reduced FLW), it was not culturally appropriate in the Ghanaian context at the time and was not adopted. This shows that the food culture – encompassing both preparation and consumption habits – should be properly considered in introducing technologies for reducing FLW.

Guaranteeing food safety must remain central to FLW reduction. As has severally been stated by FAO and WHO, when the safety of food is compromised, it ceases to be food. It would therefore be counterproductive for any technology introduced to reduce FLW to compromise food safety. At the maiden FAO/WHO/AU international food safety conference, it was highlighted that all technologies introduced in local food value chains should have a “demonstrated efficacy to guarantee low occurrence of, and low consumer exposure to, critical food safety hazards in the value chain considered”. A notable example is the introduction of the FAO-Thiaroye Processing Technique (FTT) - an improved smoking and drying stove that, while contributing to the reduction of FLW in fishery products, has also been scientifically demonstrated to drastically reduce in-process carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons contamination of fish to levels below international regulatory limits.

Markets influence technology adoption. However much an innovation may reduce FLW in principle, in practice, its adoption would be low if food businesses do not observe an availability of attractive market conditions to warrant the adoption. What, for example, is the prevailing demand for products made through methods geared at reducing FLW? Are there government-facilitated schemes to differentiate products made responsibly using appropriate technologies from those that are not? Where supply exceeds demand in a local market, are there support systems for providing access to other markets for any surpluses? For example, studies conducted on the adoption of the aforementioned FTT in some countries in the Global South showed that lack of price-differentiation between products from the FTT and traditional stoves was a disincentive for adoption of the improved stove. On the other hand, adoption of the same innovation in Cote d’Ivoire allowed small and medium  scale enterprises to successfully export smoked fish to European markets due to low process contaminant levels. 

In the pursuit of the SDGs, gains in one area should not detract from progress in other areas. For example, championing FLW reduction to improve food security and nutrition (SDG 2) should not result in a negative environmental impact (SDGs 13, 14 and 15). FAO estimates that FLW contributes about 8% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, technologies for reducing FLW should, in fact, be confirmed to protect the environment by reasonably contributing to a reduction of such emissions. Even in resource-limited contexts where technologies for FLW reduction may not be overly sophisticated, efforts should be made to make them climate-smart.

To enhance adoption – and thereby reduce FLW – technologies should accommodate gender sensitivity concerns. To reduce losses and waste, it is critical to understand how and why they occur. To gain such insight, the roles played at each point of the food value chain under study should be properly interrogated by engaging the actors themselves. Such engagements would foster understanding of the peculiar needs, constraints, and preferences of the actors, which when addressed would improve the efficiency of their activities to reduce FLW.  For example, in several value chains in low- and middle-income countries, there are clear distinctions in gender roles. Generally, in the fishery value chain in African countries, men undertake harvesting operations whereas women handle the post-harvest operations (processing and distribution/trade).  The needs of each gender differ significantly. Whereas for the men, improved fishing gear to reduce bycatch may be useful for loss reduction, improved processing equipment may be required by the women to ensure efficient production to reduce losses. 

In addition to the aforementioned considerations, to ensure that real gains are made and sustained, all efforts at reducing FLW upstream and downstream should be anchored in relevant, implementable policies that define, direct, and incentivise the reduction efforts.

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