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The Problem of Food Loss: views from the Catholic Social Teaching and solutions from Caritas

Filed under: Features,Vatican Documents |

(L'Osservatore Romano / Vatican Radio)

Address delivered by Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, Archbishop of Manila and President of Caritas Internationalis, on May 30, 2016 at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

Distinguished Director General, Ambassadors, Ladies and Gentlemen, dear friends

It is a privilege to speak today to such a qualified audience. I am grateful to the FAO for allowing me to take part in this panel, what gives me also the great pleasure to meet personally the Director-General, Prof. José Graziano da Silva. Caritas Internationalis and FAO have an established institutional relation, and my presence here today is a tangible element of this cooperation

My intervention aims at presenting a new way to frame the problem of food loss, suggesting solutions from the experience of Caritas organizations.

The problem of food loss is very present among the concerns of the Catholic Church, as an issue that hampers availability of food for all, therefore undermining human development. In the practice of Caritas organizations, one of the challenges in the implementation of projects at all levels is the food loss that farmers and communities experience, year in year out. Food loss is occurring in all stages of agricultural value chains development after harvest, including during transport from field to the homestead, during threshing or shelling, during storage, during transport to the market and during marketing. It is especially damageful for small-scale farmers, whose food security and capacity to earn from their work can be severely threatened.

Already in his Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict reaffirmed that a way to eliminate the structural causes of food insecurity is to promote agricultural development, through investments in rural infrastructure, irrigation, transportation,  market organization, training and sharing agricultural techniques among farmers (CiV, 27). All these interventions are especially effective in preventing food losses.

More recently, Pope Francis reminded us that realizing the fundamental human right to adequate food is not only an economic and “technical” challenge, but especially ethical  and anthropological1: States bear the obligation to create favourable conditions for food security, to respect the person and his/her way to use the necessary resources, to ensure safety and quantity of food. If we want that food systems ensure the right to adequate food for everyone, including the most disadvantaged ones, this requires sound policies and effective measures to prevent food losses. The problem of food loss is clearly a systemic problem, the consequence of food systems not centred around the human person, but rather around the market. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis said no to an economy of exclusion and inequality, rejecting trickle-down theories, whereby economic growth and free market would eventually bring about greater justice and inclusiveness. He asked all of us: “Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving?”2

Especially his Encyclical, Laudato Si’, reminds us that a correct reading of the Biblical texts unfolds for us a beautiful invitation to “till and keep the garden of the world”, to be its stewards and guardians (cfr Gen 2,15). While “tilling” refers to cultivating and working, “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. Would the duty to “keep this garden” not apply also to its fruits? The Encyclical goes on: “Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.” What better way to protect and ensure fruitfulness than shunning overproduction which depletes natural resources, while making sure that the fruits of the earth do not go lost? The Pope shows deep concern for the depletion of natural resources, recalling that the exploitation of the planet has reached its maximum (LS 23, passim). This makes new patterns of production and consumption absolutely necessary.

The fruits of the earth are to benefit everyone. This requires to adopt a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged. According to the Catholic Social Doctrine private property is subordinated to the universal destination of goods; recalling the teaching of Saint John Paul II3, Pope Francis restates that “a type of development which did not respect and promote human rights – personal and social, economic and political, including the rights of nations and of peoples – would not be really worthy of man” (LS, 93).

The experience of Caritas organizations shows that, often, small-scale farmers lack of capacity in managing post-harvest losses. The human right to adequate food requires equal access to resources for food: thus, apart from the ownership of property, rural people must have access to means of technical education, credit, insurance, and markets” (LS, 94). This is also the kind of accompaniment Caritas provides, through the promotion of improved methods of harvest, training in proper harvest timing and storage techniques, awareness-raising on the right to food, as well as advocacy towards governments for the formulation of specific policy and strategies to guide the work of all those involved with post-harvest losses, like researchers, extension workers, private sector players, government, NGOs international aid organizations and farmers.

A study carried out by Caritas Malawi (CADECOM) in 2014, for example, looked at food crops such as maize, millet, sorghum, soy bean, beans, pigeon peas and groundnuts, showing that food losses were posing a challenge to food security of individual farmers and to the country as a whole. It revealed serious unmet needs: firstly, the constraints experienced by farmers, like the lack of financial resources to purchase storage equipment and lack of appropriate storage facilities; a number of storage methods are not accessible, due to limited awareness, lack of access to technologies and prohibitive acquisition costs; farmers need opportunities to go for training and extension services, as well as to avail themselves of traditional and improved technologies. Let us never forget the importance of traditional methods4 for crop storage, particularly relevant to small-scale farmers. Secondly, there are no specific governmental strategies on post­harvest losses. This motivated Caritas Malawi to implement programs to enhance farmers’ capabilities and to engage in policy advocacy.

The Catholic Social Teaching encourages the promotion of an economy which favours productive diversity and values small-scale food production systemswhich feed the greater part of the world. In many cases, small-scale producers are forced to sell their land or abandon their traditional crops. Their attempts to shift to other forms of production are often frustrated because regional and global markets are not open to them, or because the infrastructure for sales and transport is geared to larger businesses. Civil authorities have the right and duty to adopt measures in support of small-scale producers and differentiated production. (LS, 129) It is essential that food systems integrate the fundamental value of human work: ensuring that the fruits of human work do not go lost is a matter of justice! National and local policies and measures should encourage various forms of cooperation or community organization which defend the interests of small-scale producers and ensure sustainable development.

For example, Catholic Charities (Caritas) USA carries out a program called “Farm for Maine”, aiming at providing nutrient-rich, organic vegetables to needy people who resort to food pantries. Some of the produce is distributed right out of the field, while most of it is processed in partnership with small women-owned business, for distribution over the winter months. This partnership fosters employment and cooperation, beyond allowing to keep vegetables long into the harsh Maine winter when the need is the greatest.

Another example if the food distribution system developed in the State of Washington to distribute fresh fruits and vegetables to low-income households.Catholic Charities of the city of Spokane created extensive connections with over 50 farming enterprises to feed a community in which 17% of residents receive food through food stamps provided by the government. A robust “farm-to-food bank” system was built, working with multiple partners including universities to provide nutrition education programs and to build supply-chain capacity. Farmers were connected to supply routes culminating in the city, feeding distribution sites at close proximity, allowing to deliver food without substantial transportation infrastructure. Equipment like a delivery vehicle, refrigerators and coolers for storage improved the capacity of distribution sites.

In sum, the ways Caritas addresses food losses do not consist only of technical solution. Rather, they respond to a vision based on human development that is integral and ecological: Caritas programs are always oriented to the most vulnerable and marginalised people; they ensure sustainable development by respecting the environment, human health and well-being, and fostering employment creation; they aim at achieving social justice, by creating virtuous alliances based on solidarity and cooperation, favouring social inclusion.

Conclusions: a new approach to food loss

The market alone cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion. Even when addressing an apparently technical problem like food loss, we must not overlook “the deepest roots of our present failures, which have to do with the direction, goals, meaning and social implications of technological and economic growth.” (LS, 109)

We must look at things differently, we must make policy choices, adopt lifestyles and spirituality that break with the sheer “technocratic paradigm”. Adopting only technical remedies to food loss equals to forgetting the human person, separating “what is in reality interconnected and” masking “the true and deepest problems of the global system.” (LS, 111).

Thank you.


1 Cfr. FRANCIS, Message for the World Food Day 2013, 2.

2 FRANCIS, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 53.

3 Encyclical Letter Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (30 December 1987), 33: AAS 80 (1988), 557.

4 Including use of herbs from trees/shrubs, use of ash from livestock waste and crop residues and use of traditional granaries. Applying ash to some crops like beans is very effective: they are not attacked by weevils and no longer take time to cook. Ash applied to sweet potato and kept is a pit will ensure preservation for up to five months. Caritas Malawi, however, is working with all levels of farmers: smallholders, middle income farmers and commercial farmers, through different programme approaches suitable to each of them. Therefore, some strategies for managing crop losses – such as use of agro­chemicals – may not work to smallholder farmers who may only require traditional methods. The use of agro-chemicals is very much suitable to middle income and commercial farmers.

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