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Food Loss and Food Waste – How Plant Biotech is Making a Difference

By Chantel Arendse (Lead: Plant Biotechnology)

It is disturbing to know that each year one third of all the food produced globally is either lost or wasted. And this food waste is costing us more than just food. Not only is this an economic loss, but also a waste of all the resources that went into producing the food – such as water, land, energy, soil, seeds and other inputs. In addition, wasted food ultimately ends up in landfills where it is estimated to contribute to around 8% of human-related global greenhouse gas emissions, causing as much damage to our planet as plastic waste. Reducing food loss and waste is essential for food security and affordability, as we live in a world where millions of people still go to bed hungry every day.

In 2020 the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) declared September 29th as the International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste (IDAFLW). As we observed the second IDAFLW in 2021, it was once again an urgent call to action for all individuals, public and private entities to accelerate our efforts to cut food loss and waste and ensure the resilience and sustainability of our food systems.

But what exactly is food loss and food waste?

According to the FAO, food loss refers to any kind of loss in quantity or quality of food along the supply chain before it reaches consumers; this typically covers production, transportation, storage and packaging. Current estimates indicate that up to 14% of food produced is lost in the production cycle as result of pre- and post-harvest losses.

Food waste on the other hand refers to food of good quality and fit for consumption, that is not eaten by consumers but is instead discarded or left to spoil or expire. The main contributors of food waste are consumers, retailers and restaurants. Sadly, it is estimated that in developed countries up to 230 million tonnes of food is wasted each year, equivalent to almost all the food produced in sub–Saharan Africa annually.

As this year’s IFLFW day drew attention to technology and innovative solutions for food loss and waste, let’s take a closer look at how plant biotech is making a difference.

Tackling the challenge of food loss

A planted field is the first place in the supply chain where food loss can occur. Looking specifically at the developing world, up to 50% of all crops are lost due to pests, crop diseases or post-harvest losses. With the right technology and innovations, farmers can improve their harvests.

Plant biotechnology is one such innovative tool that has delivered seed technology to farmers with traits offering resistance to insects, weeds and viral diseases. This has enabled farmers to significantly reduce their production losses making more food available and affordable to more families globally.

The expansion of biotech crop technology to lesser known but equally important food staple crops, is another positive step. Already insect resistant (IR) varieties of cowpea are available to farmers in Nigeria, insect resistant eggplant is being grown in Asia and virus resistant cassava varieties will soon be available for cultivation in Kenya. Showing that it’s not only the technology that’s expanding, but also globally more farmers are benefitting by minimising their crop losses and maximising their yields.

But pests and disease are not the only problem. Food production within the new reality of climate change requires crops that are designed to be more resilient and able to withstand harsher growing conditions. Biotech is already responding to the climate challenge with crops in the pipeline designed to be more resilient to severe heat or cold, flood or drought conditions as well as soils with high levels of salt or metals enabling farmers to reduce crop losses even further during extreme climatic situations. Global crop losses would double each year if farmers couldn’t utilise the many crop protection tools provided by plant science innovation.

Challenging the issue of food waste

In developed countries where food is plentiful, food waste at the retail and consumer level is significant. While food spoilage is largely to blame, a considerable percentage of perfectly edible food is rejected due to cosmetic reasons such as browning, bruising, or small imperfections in food appearance such as shape and colour. Here are some of the ways that biotech innovations are stepping in to tackle the food waste challenge.

An excellent example is arctic apples, developed in the U.S. Breeders have used genetic modification technology to reduce one of the chemical compounds that make apples go brown after slicing. The reduced browning of apples cuts down on food waste as they are less likely to be tossed in the bin. US company Simplot has developed the innate potato – a non-bruising, non-browning potato with an added food safety benefit of reduced acrylamide levels during cooking. Innate potatoes are helping both consumers and retailers to maximise the consumption and sale of fresh produce.

Other biotech innovations in the pipeline include delayed fruit ripening in climacteric fruits, such as apples, bananas, apricots, melons and tomatoes. Scientists are exploring different ways to control the ripening process by modifying the amount of ethylene produced in fruit. Delayed ripening technology will extend the shelf life of the fruits that we love to eat, reduce spoilage during transportation and storage and cut down the levels of rotten fruit being thrown away.

These examples demonstrate that biotech is a vital ally in the food waste challenge, providing some unique solutions to meet the demands of consumers and make our food systems more resilient.

Let’s all be part of the solution

It’s clear that we can’t just rely on biotech innovation to make a difference. Food loss and food waste is not just an environmental, economic and social problem. It is also a human problem. So, in honour of IDAFLW lets all take urgent action to curb unnecessary food waste and the resources that go into producing it. Next time we take our trollies for a spin in the fresh produce section, let’s be conscious of where our food comes from and how as individuals, we can be part of the food saving solution and not the food waste problem.

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