Why Transporting Vegetables Is Not So Different From Delivering Vaccines

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Every day in low-income countries throughout the world, tons of fresh fruit and vegetables fail to reach their destinations or become damaged and inedible along the way. By contrast, highly processed foods – likely to include large amounts of fat, sugar or preservatives – reach these same destinations, ready to be eaten by people in need of food. This simultaneous availability of less healthy processed food and shortage of nutritious food is a key factor in the growing combination of undernutrition and obesity throughout many low-income countries.

Picture what a typical vegetable must go through to reach a person in a low-income country. Much of the developing world lacks the farms or the conditions to grow edible vegetables, so they must be imported from far away. Once the vegetable is harvested, it has a limited amount of time to travel great distances before spoiling. It must navigate through a complex series of locations, vehicles, equipment, people and processes that relay it all the way from the farm to the consumer. Along the way, the relatively fragile vegetable must remain protected from high temperatures, damaging weather, bruising, insects, worms, and various other hazards.

Major parts of these agricultural supply chains are unreliable, unsafe, outdated and even absent, especially once the vegetable arrives a low-income country. Vehicles may be broken or not have enough room or the right equipment. In fact, these vehicles may serve numerous other purposes so may not even be available or may be carrying toxic materials such as chemicals or excrement. Frequently, there is unnavigable terrain, leaving people to travel on bikes, animals, or foot. Storage locations and equipment may be dilapidated and unsafe. The supply chain employs poorly paid workers who may not have the training or motivation to take care of the foodstuff. And even if the vegetable were to successfully traverse all these obstacles, the final destination may not properly refrigerate, clean and prepare it for safe consumption.

By contrast, highly processed food have a much easier journey. Take cookies as an example: preservatives and protective packaging can help them withstand adverse conditions, assault by insects, worms or other predators, and other potential damage while maintaining their original, attractive form. The cookie manufacturer has invested time, effort, and resources to design and run a special supply chain. Compared to the vegetable, the cookies are glamorous celebrities: enhanced by plastic surgery and traveling business class all the way. Once the cookies reach their destination, they are ready to eat. No preparation is necessary, and they still taste great.

Over the past decade, many low-income countries have enjoyed growing access to food – but not necessarily healthy food. Empty wrappers, bags, bottles, and boxes of well-known brands of processed foods now appear in even the most remote parts of the world. When highly processed foods reach their destination and fruits and vegetables do not, a population has little choice over which they eat. Until agricultural supply chains for low-income countries are improved, fresh fruits and vegetables may have little chance against their hardier and less healthy competitors.

Source: The Guardian (link opens in a new window)

Health Care
supply chains, vaccines