A Lean approach to agriculture

Published on
September 18, 2023
Roberto Priolo
Roberto Priolo
Roberto Priolo is editor at the Lean Global Network and Planet Lean
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FEATURE - Waste in the agricultural sector poses a major threat not only to the environment, economy and farmers, but also to food security around the world.

Words: Juan Guillermo Ramírez, Lean Specialist, Lean Institute Colombia

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 6% of food is wasted in Latin America each year. This means that about 15% of the food available each year is wasted in our region. Here in Colombia, food waste last year was 9.76 million tons, according to the Association of Food Banks - the equivalent of feeding an extra 430 grams per day to 37 million Colombians for a year (the minimum amount recommended by the World Health Organization). Globally, the numbers are even worse: an estimated one-third of the food produced worldwide is never eaten!

Lean Thinking can play a key role in the many value streams that make up the food industry, address food waste and help improve the agricultural sector. There is no doubt that this also requires infrastructure and technology investments that can help agribusinesses increase productivity and cope with growing competition and demand in the future. But this is only half the story. World Bank data show that throughout the agricultural "value chain," 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted each year. Such a major problem cannot be addressed with productivity increases alone.

I spoke about this recently with Jose Yarso Moreno, who heads agricultural operations at CARTAMA, a producer of Hass avocado. He said that although the sector might be tempted to respond to increased demand with the purchase of new equipment and technology, what needs to happen first is a rethinking of the work by developing capacities - especially on the front lines. In this way, frontline workers have at their disposal a system made up of tools, concepts and standards that allow them to improve their ability to detect and respond to problems (deviations from standards), leading to sound decision-making and optimal use of resources.

This is the kind of action, Yarso says, that really allows you to control your costs and waste per acre, by creating a proactive environment where work is predictable and learning is continuous. Moreover, they can help us respond to the catastrophic effects of climate change on plants and crops.

According to Andrea Alfaro, director of Operational Excellence at GHT Corp, which helps agribusinesses maximize efficiency by acting as an intermediary between flower producers and sellers, a feature of agricultural processes in Colombia (although there is no reason to think it would be different in other countries) is that while it is possible to quantify waste at the end of production processes, it is very difficult to understand at which stages of the process the most waste is generated. This uncertainty makes it particularly difficult to take action to address work inefficiencies. Andrea also points out that the industry suffers from high staff turnover and a general lack of interest among new generations. This leads to steep and slow learning curves, a problem compounded by the lack of standards in the industry.

It is time to provide the agricultural sector with solutions that go beyond the technification of processes and promote the internalization of Lean-concepts, the establishment and enforcement of standards and the adoption of management practices that facilitate not only the elimination of waste, but also the appropriate and responsible use of resources.

The author

Juan Guillermo Ramírez is a Lean Specialist at Lean Institute Colombia

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