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Cornell University

Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition

Study Offers Clues for Reducing Food Loss and Waste in Perishable Supply Chains

Crates of tomatoes at a market

Fresh fruits and vegetables are an important source of micronutrients, but access to them is limited in developing countries like India because of several factors, including food loss and waste. New research on tomato supply chains from the Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition (TCI) at Cornell University sheds light on where and when most loss occurs and how it can be reduced.

In a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, TCI Postdoctoral Associate Jocelyn Boiteau and Director Prabhu Pingali show that most food loss in South India’s tomato supply chain occurs on the farm and demonstrate a link between quality loss and the number of tomatoes eventually lost.

Boiteau and Pingali found that while loss is common along the supply chain, the most loss occurs after tomatoes are harvested but before they leave the farm. Lower levels of loss were found to be associated with harvesting during peak season, indicating the potential importance of seasonal supply and demand factors.

“Farmers face several challenges before tomatoes even leave the farmgate, including damage from pests, lack of storage, and price fluctuations,” Boiteau said.

The researchers also discovered a link between preharvest quality loss and postharvest quantity loss, with a 1% increase in preharvest damage corresponding to a 2% rise in postharvest loss. According to the study, 13.9% of tomatoes suffer preharvest quality loss due to damage from pests and disease, in addition to too much sun or rain or a lack of rain. Harvesting during peak season was found to reduce the odds of quality loss by 88% compared to off-season harvests.

Boiteau and Pingali suggest that strategies for reducing food loss and waste in perishable supply chains should focus on the underlying reasons for loss, namely postharvest handling, seasonality, and market structures.

“Farmers face several challenges before tomatoes even leave the farmgate, including damage from pests, lack of storage, and price fluctuations,” Boiteau said. “Access to storage facilities may give farmers a level of flexibility in terms of the timing between harvest and marketing, allowing farmers to maintain tomato quality while waiting for market prices to become profitable. Additionally, transparency and communication regarding accurate price information and quality standards would help inform farmer decision making on harvest and grading activities.”

Boiteau says that India’s electronic trading platform—the National Agriculture Market, or eNAM—may help to provide accurate price information and clear grading standards, but it’s too early to discern its impact. “Uptake and usage of the platform have been slow, and its effectiveness remains to be seen, especially for perishable markets,” she said.

Technological developments may also help to reduce loss and waste. Boiteau notes that it is difficult for tomato farmers to pivot from fresh to processed tomato supply chains because different varieties are sought for each. She says that ongoing work from the World Vegetable Center on “dual purpose” tomato varieties may open alternative markets for farmers.

The study is based on Boiteau’s doctoral research, conducted in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana from January 2019 to March 2020. To estimate the extent of qualitative and quantitative food loss and waste, Boiteau and her research team surveyed 75 farm households and 83 tomato traders in the Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh, in addition to 52 vegetable traders and 50 vegetable retailers in Hyderabad, Telangana, on harvest and market days.

Featured image: Crates of tomatoes stacked at the Madanapalle tomato market in Andhra Pradesh, India. (Photo by Jocelyn Boiteau)