Solving World Hunger: The Complexity of Simple Solutions Donna Rosa | March 2017, Volume 71, No.3

Food security in the developing world requires more creativity than technology. The constraints are enormous, but small steps can make a huge difference.

Pearl millet processing in Senegal
When it comes to feeding the world, we need to find a better way. We grow enough food for everyone on the planet, yet one person in eight goes to bed hungry each night (World Food Programme 2016). Clearly the food isn’t getting where it’s needed, and even when it is available, malnutrition is often a chronic problem. While there is disagreement on whether we’ll be able feed the 10 billion population expected by 2050 (Plumer 2013, Gimenez 2012), much can be done today.

Solutions to food insecurity in the developing world must be simple in order to be feasible, but simple does not mean easy. Nonetheless, ingenious ways to address the problem have been developed and implemented around the globe. Three innovative approaches include carefully designed storage bags that reduce crop losses from infestation, simple processing equipment that improves harvesting and production efficiency, and traditional cross-breeding of food crops to increase natural nutrient density. Each development came with a bonus: unanticipated additional benefits.

Better Storage Reduces Food Loss
The amount of food lost after harvesting is hard to digest. Global postharvest losses are estimated to be 30–40% (Postharvest Education Foundation 2016) and can exceed 50% in some developing countries (World Food Preservation Center 2016). The reasons for food loss can include lack of proper storage facilities, poor farming and harvesting practices, market volatility, inadequate distribution, and infestation. Improved storage is an effective way to address food insecurity. The challenge is to develop solutions that meet local constraints, especially cost.

Sometimes the answer is simply the right storage bag. For example, an elegant protection system was developed by a research team led by Larry Murdock, distinguished professor of Entomology at Purdue University. “In 1987, we were asked to improve cowpea storage in Cameroon,” he recalled, where cowpea weevils were feasting on the harvest. The outcome was straightforward, highly effective, and affordable.

“Our team first had to figure out how the insects reproduced inside the sealed bags,” Murdock explained. Where did they get the water needed to survive? The researchers realized that the bugs made their own H2O by metabolizing available starch, with oxygen fueling the process.

Purdue’s PICS storage bags The solution was to choke off the oxygen source. Murdock’s group eventually came up with the hermetic Purdue Improved Crop Storage (PICS) bag. It utilized a woven polypropylene outer bag for strength and some oxygen protection, but added two inner bags of 80-micron high density polyethylene as an oxygen barrier. Using two bags provided backup insurance but also slipped easily over each other, reducing stress and tearing. The triple threat worked beautifully.

The critical success factor was to ensure a hermetic seal. Farmers were taught to leave a 12–15-inch lip at the top of each liner and the outer bag, twist tightly, fold in half, and secure with twine. This was easily learned; over 3 million farmers in 46,000 villages in Africa and Asia have been trained to use PICS bags.

Show and tell is always the best way to sell skeptical, resource-limited smallholder farmers on new technologies. So Murdock’s team worked with users to test the newfangled bag and document its efficacy. They held village bag-opening ceremonies where farmers who tried the bags untied them for the first time after six months’ storage to illustrate that no pests got in. Those events were a big deal in the small communities. One massive celebration in Burkina Faso attracted 10,000 people and has become a biannual event.

In Niger they didn’t have to wait six months to know the bags were working. Farming families often store crops in their homes for protection against theft and vermin. One farmer was convinced early on that the bags were effective because the ones in his bedroom were both cool and quiet. What did that mean?

Multiplying insects generate heat, and the storage bags were often warm to the touch. Not these bags. The weevils also make a high pitched clicking sound when feeding, but these bags were silent. Properly sealed, the bags protect crops almost indefinitely. The highlight of the 2015 Burkina Faso celebration was the opening a bag from 2007; the eight-year-old cowpeas were as pristine (and edible) as they day they were sealed.

Farmer feedback also helped the Purdue crew optimize the bag size. It was originally designed to hold 50 kg of product to facilitate handling. But farmers asked for cost-effective larger bags, saying they’d figure out how to haul them. The team developed 100-kg bags, and they now represent the vast majority of sales.