June 12, 2024
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June 12, 2024
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Nearly a third of all the food produced in the world is lost or wasted, according to the UN’s World Resources Institute. If we con­vert this mass into calories, it constitutes nearly a quarter of all food produced, which could have fed hungry and malnourished people around the world. But new technol­ogy that prolongs the life of fresh fruit and vegetables can help minimize this huge amount of waste.

It is a sad irony that we waste so much food—especially fruit and vegetables—but still fail to feed the world’s ever-increasing population. Clearly, our ability to produce larger quantities of fruit and vegetables is not the only guarantee for global food security. We need to start minimizing the amount of food that is produced and then lost.

Loss happens when food is spilled in tran­sit or spoiled from heavy bruising or wilting. It is the unplanned result of an agricultural process gone wrong or technical limitations in storage, infrastructure, packaging, or mar­keting. Good food is also wasted when it is simply thrown away before or after it spoils.

Keeping it fresh

A key way to minimize the amount of food lost is through postharvest technol­ogy, which can help make food last long­er without losing nutrients. Once devel­oped, it needs to be integrated into the global supply chain of food production.

We need to optimize the food we already produce, especially in developing countries. This can be done by significantly improving the way food is handled after harvesting, par­ticularly to make the process more hygien­ic. We should make sure postharvest tech­niques are environmentally friendly and, of course, non-toxic to humans when applied to food.

The natural way

The use of natural biodegradable prod­ucts as an alternative to synthetic chemi­cals has shown remarkable improvements in maintaining fruit quality and extending shelf life. These natural products are non-toxic to humans and safe.

Chitosan, for example, is a natural prod­uct obtained from crustacean shells. It has been shown to significantly maintain papaya fruit when applied to it. In combination with Gum Arabic (hardened sap obtained from the acacia tree) it can also delay the ripening of bananas. Gum Arabic can also be used on its own to enhance the shelf life and posthar­vest quality of tomatoes. Cinnamon oil is an­other natural product that has been shown to delay postharvest rotting in bananas and extending their storage life for up to 28 days.

Our research at the Centre of Excellence for Post-harvest Biotechnology at Notting­ham University’s Malaysia Campus is mak­ing these natural products into nano-forms or submicron particles to control posthar­vest diseases. This technology has so far been used to delay ripening in tomatoes and en­hance their phenolic content, as well as ex­tending the life of dragon fruit for up to 28 days. These are just a few examples, with many more being developed to improve the quality and shelf life of fresh fruit to help stop it from going to waste.

Environmentally friendly

The way that fresh food is packaged is cru­cial to how long it can last. Synthetic chemicals are currently used to control postharvest dis­eases but consumers worry about the chemical residues they leave on fruit, their environmen­tal impact, and the potential for pathogens to become resistant to them. Our research is a re­sponse to this, developing more environmen­tally friendly and non-chemical approaches.

This includes packing food in containers that modify the atmosphere to prevent de­cay, hot water treatment or blanching and, most importantly, using natural biodegradable products as an alternative to synthetic chemi­cals. Once proper postharvest technologies are used efficiently, food losses can be minimized and the problem of food insecurity alleviated.

We believe that developing postharvest management techniques using natural prod­ucts is the way forward, especially since these natural biodegradable products we are re­searching can also contribute to traditional medicine and pharmacology as we learn more about our natural environment. Hopefully, too, we can develop better ways of reducing the huge amount of food loss that takes place and focus on getting food to those who need it.


Asgar Ali receives funding from the Minis­try of Agriculture, Malaysia.

The University of Nottingham provides funding as a Founding Partner of The Conver­sation.

Asgar Ali is Director, Centre of Excellence for Posthar­vest Biotechnology (CEPB) at the University of Notting­ham.

By Asgar Ali

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