Redesigning USAID's food aid bags could prevent 10,000 tons from going bad and save $15m a year

By Sophie Edwards 31 January 2017

Standard food aid bags at a USAID warehouse in Houston, Texas.. Photo by: Mark Brennan

Researchers are experimenting with new ways of packaging U.S. food aid in a bid to ensure as much of the food as possible feeds the hungry in developing countries and humanitarian crises.

The number of people around the world needing food assistance is at a record high with the U.N.’s World Food Programme currently responding to six hunger emergencies. Flooding and droughts caused by one of the strongest El Niño weather events on record have left millions of people in southern Africa, Asia and Latin America struggling to find food and water.  Furthermore, ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and South Sudan mean millions of displaced people are without access to food.

The U.S. Agency for International Development is the world’s biggest food aid donor, contributing $1.5 billion in wheat, sorghum, rice and other food commodities every year, which it ships to ports in Djibouti, Ethiopia and South Africa. It estimates that only 1 percent of that cargo is lost to spoilage, but that means 10,000 tons of food — worth $15 million and enough to feed 200,000 families for a month — goes to waste.

As a result, last year USAID and the U.S. Department of Agriculture commissioned a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation — a USAID-supported program — to investigate how food aid is packaged and to look into alternatives that could better prevent waste and spoilage.

“The world is still reeling from the worst El Niño in a generation, which led to huge food and water shortages. As a result a lot of people are thinking about food aid and how it can be improved to meet this growing need,” said Mark Brennan, an MIT graduate student who led the procurement for the project.

Improving the way food aid is bagged can help drive efficiency and improve the quality of the food delivered, said a USAID spokesperson in an email to Devex.

“Part of food aid reform is about making our programs as efficient and effective as possible. We see the MIT evaluation as a way to potentially increase the cost efficiency and save valuable time in delivering in-kind food aid by reducing the need for fumigation,” they said.

Three challenges in USAID’s current food aid delivery system

There are three main areas where USAID’s food aid processes could be improved, Brennan said. First, avoiding spoilage due to infestation and water damage, as well as physical damage to the bags while they are being handled.  

A second area is around fumigation; currently, food bags are fumigated to prevent infestation and this can have damaging health impacts to those applying the treatment, as well as driving up the cost of delivering the food.

A third problem area is around operational efficiency and flexibility. In the past, there have been cases where food aid has been delayed due to congestion at the ports. Food left sitting on ships is more likely to spoil due to humidity and infestation, Brennan said.  

“Packaging for standard commodities hasn’t been touched for decades and there are obviously more cutting edge technologies out there now, which could potentially protect food from infestation and humidity, which would negate the need for costly and potentially risky port-side fumigation, or improve efficiencies in the bagging and handling processes to relieve port congestion,” Brennan said.

In order to test out alternative packaging options, the MIT researchers set up an experiment to try out various bag sizes and materials. They ended up with eight variations, including a bag with a liner that can be hermetically sealed and kills off bugs and avoids water damage, and bags treated with a biopesticide designed to regulate insect growth. The biopesticide does not kill bugs that make their way into the bag, but prevents them from reproducing. The team also experimented with applying an airtight liner to the shipping container to avoid infestation while the bags are in transit.

The project is being tested currently on three commodity types — yellow split peas, sorghum and milled wheat — and has been applied to a $1.7 million USAID shipment being sent to Djibouti and South Africa. The MIT group is working with USAID on the monitoring and evaluation of the project.

Following the food aid supply chain

As part of the research, Brennan embarked on a more than 2,000 mile journey following the U.S. food aid supply chain, starting at a North Dakota warehouse where yellow split peas are bagged for transport, then to Nebraska and Kansas to visit milled product suppliers, then to bag manufacturers in the South, and continuing to port warehouses in Texas. From there he flew to Djibouti and then South Africa to see the receiving end of the supply chain.

About one-quarter of the food aid shipped by USAID is pre-bagged, typically in 50 kilogram woven polypropylene bags and sent in containers. The remainder is transported in bulk and bagged at the destination ports, Brennan explained.

“At the receiving ports we witnessed the bagging process for the bulk shipments, and also the destuffing process for container shipping. We were asking the same questions — do you have infestation or breakage issues with the bags, how many people do you have on the bagging line, what’s the throughput rate on your line?” Brennan said.

The findings

Brennan said the final results and recommendations for USAID will be ready by summer. Initial results indicate each bag type has pros and cons and it is possible the experiment will result in a “productive null hypothesis,” whereby USAID’s current packaging system is deemed the most efficient for most aid deliveries, Brennan said.

However, he said the experiment has uncovered multiple new packaging options, which can be used in specific situations where enhanced bags and shipping methods are needed, such as in crisis situations where there could be delays in getting food off the ships.

MIT researchers Mark Brennan and Prithvi Sundar and representatives from the container terminal and USAID stand on the docks of an East African port. Photo by: Mark Brennan

“The dream is to be able to offer a menu of options so that USAID can pick and choose based on the particular situation on the ground, where the food aid is going, what the situation is like, the receiving partner on the ground,” he said.

Jim Bagwell, president of U.S. firm ProvisionGard Technology, which produces the biopesticide used in the experiment, said he is “confident” USAID will start using his product on its food aid bags once the results are in.

The biopesticide — which is currently used by many U.S. companies storing and transporting pasta flour, seeds and bird feed — is a cheap and efficient way of ensuring a higher quality of food that maintains its nutritional value for the end user, Bagwell said.

Fixing food aid to better feed hungry people

Inefficiencies around in-kind gifting of agricultural commodities are a threat to our ability to assuage the hunger that menaces much of the developing world, argues Dr. David Vanderpool, founder and CEO of LiveBeyond, in this exclusive guest column. What are the other speedier and less costly solutions?

It also reduces the need for fumigation, which has major cost, health, and safety implications for people along the supply chain, he said. Sending food aid to some countries in Africa, such as Chad, can require fumigation up to 12 times, he said. Bagwell’s technology, which prevents bugs from reproducing inside the bags, would eradicate the need for fumigation.

Wider reforms of U.S. food aid are needed

The U.S. food assistance program is in need of reform, according to USAID and NGOs. Under current U.S. legislation, all food aid must be bought in the U.S. and at least half of that must be packaged, processed and shipped on U.S. vessels. As a result it takes between four to six months for food to reach its destination countries — too long when there is an emergency — and 59 cents out of every dollar is spent getting it there. In contrast, European and Canadian donors provide most of their food aid in the form of cash and vouchers and procure commodities from the recipient countries or neighboring countries, which is faster and cheaper than shipping from their own territories.

While the U.S. has introduced some reforms under the 2014 Farm Bill — including relaxing the restrictions on how USAID allocates food aid funds so that it can offer NGOs cash to cover programing costs associated with food deliveries, as well as assistance for complementary projects — experts say the changes do not go far enough.

For example, food must still be procured from the U.S. and shipped abroad under heavy restrictions — which reduce competitiveness and drive up costs — and “monetization” of U.S. food aid is still a problem. This refers to the process of selling U.S. food aid in developing countries to raise money for food security projects. Approximately half of all U.S. non-emergency food aid was being sold under this practice, usually for less than it was bought for and often disrupting local food markets.

As a result, in its 2017 budget request, USAID is requesting additional flexibility around how to spend food aid resources. The agency wants up to 25 percent of resources to be available for “market-based interventions such as local and regional procurement of commodities, food vouchers or cash transfers” to be used where U.S. “in-kind assistance” (U.S. food shipments) are deemed inappropriate due to market or security conditions and where a rapid response is needed.

Campaigners hope further reforms will be achieved when the bill is revisited in 2019.

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About the author

Edwards sopie
Sophie Edwards

Sophie Edwards is a reporter for Devex based out of Washington D.C. and London where she covers global development news, careers and lifestyle issues. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.


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