There has been a perfect storm of issues circulating - covid, climate change, and the war in Ukraine, each of which has a significant impact on our food system. The impact of the conflict in Ukraine is expected to continue to push food prices upward. Globally, as major exports are stuck in fields and ports in Ukraine and Russia coupled with rising fertilizer and fuel prices, food prices remain high. Some estimates suggest that each month of conflict will lead to a year of turmoil. We are at six months and counting.
World Wildlife Fund (WWF) published No Grain Left Behind, a report that revealed that the average post-harvest loss for corn and soybeans in the US is higher than both grower estimates, and extension accepted levels. This scale of potential loss shows how vital it is to work towards more consistent, accurate, and global measurements of post-harvest loss. The average in-field corn loss on US farms (not including on-farm storage) is about 4.7%, whereas anticipated industry levels were 1%. When scaled to the national level, this is about 503 million bushels of corn worth $2.07 billion, based on 2019 production figures. For soybeans, about 4.5% is loss in-field, whereas 3% is the anticipated industry loss. With the scale of US commodity production, the level of corn loss alone found in this study when scaled to national levels was nearly equivalent to the total 2021 corn exports to Mexico, the second largest buyer of US corn for that year.
Commodity prices (in nominal terms) rose sharply following the start of the war in Ukraine, particularly for commodities for which Russia and Ukraine are key exporters. Price increases from April 2020-March 2022 were the largest for any equivalent 23-month period since 1973 for energy, and since 2008 for fertilizers and food.
World Bank Group. 2022. Commodity Markets Outlook, April 2022 : The Impact of the War in Ukraine on Commodity Markets. Commodity Market Outlook;. Washington, DC: World Bank. © World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/37223 License: CC BY 3.0 IGO
Given the global context of rising food prices, interrupted supply chains from COVID-19, and ever- increasing impacts of climate change, loss of this magnitude in global commodity crops is substantial. It’s also something we can’t afford. If the most efficient commodity crop system in the world has this level of loss, what might that mean for the rest of the world’s production? Couple that with pre-harvest losses resulting from changing climate conditions, and we can assume that a significant amount of crop is being left behind or never even matures for harvest, meaning we are using scarce resources to grow crops that aren’t even harvestable. While it is impossible to get to 0% loss, as at some point it becomes more costly to harvest remaining crops than it is to leave them on the field, this study showed that there is still a ways to go before we reach that level of diminishing returns.
New estimates indicate that of all the food grown, approximately 40% goes uneaten, an increase over the previously estimated 33%. We no longer have time, or space, to accept these levels of loss and waste as the cost of doing business in the face of climate change and conflict. As one of the top eight exporters, not only is the US providing significant amounts of energy in the form of food and feed to low-producing countries, but we are also trying to compete in a global market as climate change increases pressure on natural resources and post-harvest losses. We cannot keep doing business in this way.
We need transformational changes, not incremental improvements. We learned from the COVID-19 pandemic that we cannot wait for perfect science before we act and make changes. There is no perfect science, and if we don’t act quickly and adjust as better information becomes available, we are going continue to lose natural resources, biodiversity, and more. Post-harvest loss must be reduced, and pre-harvest loss should be tracked and reported to foster awareness of the effects of climate change on our ability to grow food. Increasing habitat conversion and the use of more inputs is not the answer. With the toll from covid, conflict, and climate change, we can’t wait to address these challenges. If traders and producers are not willing to measure and share global loss estimates in anonymized and aggregated platforms created over the next few years (not decades), then governments will need to require transparency if for no other reason than to better anticipate food needs and shortages.
About the authors:
Katherine Devine, Director of Business Case Development, WWF Markets Institute
Katherine brings more than 15 years of experience working at the intersection of business and conservation. Collaborating with internal and external experts, she crafts concise, digestible business cases on a range of topics related to food production, analyzing how sustainability can lead to positive bottom-line impacts and reduced risk.
Leigh Prezkop, Senior Program Specialist for Food Waste, WWF
Leigh manages the food loss and farm-level work in the greater food loss and waste portfolio. Leigh’s expertise includes agriculture and food systems, urban agriculture, small-scale aquaculture, and environmental public health. Previously, Leigh worked as a farmer and fermenter for medium-scale vegetable farms and urban-farm production companies.