Innovative technology for global food waste solutions

From simple sun drying systems for produce to home appliances networked with food distributors, food scientist John Floros sees a major role for technology in reducing worldwide food waste.

As much as one-third to one-half of the world’s food harvest is lost from field to plate every year, experts estimate. Food scientist John Floros wants to change those numbers—and he’s betting on a new food science and innovation center to help turn things around.

How ingenuity will feed the world.
John Floros

The new lab’s work will be critical to food security by preserving more and better quality food for the world’s growing population, says Floros, dean of the College of Agriculture at Kansas State University and director of K-State Research and Extension. The new food center, called the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for the Reduction of Post-Harvest Loss, is housed at Kansas State University and coordinates with the U.S. Agency for International Development. Initially the new lab will focus on helping the countries of Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana and Guatemala reduce their post-harvest losses and food waste for grain and oil seed crops, tuberous root crops, and peanut and legume crops. Researchers will investigate how to prevent insect pests and fungus when crops are stored as well as improved techniques for measurement, drying and storage.

The quality of food is at its highest in the field. And we can only preserve what we get in the field. We can’t make it more.”
— John Floros

Floros has worked in the field of food science since the 1980s, concentrating on preserving food quality and safety. But he says the urgency of optimizing food systems for growing populations has never been more pressing: The United Nations has forecast a global population of 9.6 billion people by 2050, while the amount of land available for cultivation is likely to decrease.

“In order for us to have a food system that will feed 8, 9, 10 billion people day in and day out, safely, with the right nutrition, you have to have a robust one in place,” says Floros.

Innovation throughout the food system

The first place to look for food waste solutions, says Floros, is the field. “We cannot forget the quality of food is at its highest in the field. And we can only preserve what we get in the field. We can’t make it more,” he says.

In the future, food scientists will likely work closely with agronomists and horticulturists, he says, just as they now work with nutritionists and behavioral scientists. For example, food scientists will work with wheat or rice geneticists to develop new varieties of cereal crops with better nutrition or sensory qualities that consumers prefer, Floros predicts.

Cutting the amount of post-harvest loss is another important component of reducing food waste. “Many countries have the ability to produce enough food at the field level, but a third or a half or more gets lost before it gets to the consumer,” Floros says. Most of this loss stems from product mishandling, lack of appropriate technology during harvest, inadequate storage facilities, insufficient processing methods, and in general, transportation systems that just aren’t sophisticated enough.

Technology solutions on the ground and at home

In addition, producers in some countries don’t yet have the ability to deliver food to the consumer in a form that can be consumed. Floros remembers visiting a farmer’s market in Africa: “A woman was selling really nice tomatoes. Each week she only sells about half of them,” he says. “Instead of letting [the excess tomatoes] rot, food science can help preserve the tomatoes for another day.”

Simple sun drying, for example, can preserve some fresh produce, he says. Other products could be salted or concentrated for preservation. Some may be heated to high enough temperatures for pasteurization or sterilization and then packaged appropriately. “Food science can help resolve major challenges that, without us, I don’t think society will be able to resolve on its own,” Floros says.

Reducing post-harvest loss extends to smart innovations that may one day appear in-home, such as a package that shrinks in size as the food is consumed to better preserve the remaining product. Or perhaps a refrigerator with multiple zones, each set for a different temperature, humidity and atmosphere composition to match the needs of certain food items and maximize their shelf life.

“In my early days as a scientist, you would go to the grocery store, buy whole lettuce and bring it home. You would eat some and put the rest in the fridge. A day later it was rotten,” Floros says. “Today, shredded lettuce is available. All you have to do is put it in the bowl. That didn’t happen accidentally. It took a lot of time developing a process and a plastic bag that will keep the lettuce fresh. As a result we consume more fresh vegetables now than before. In a simple way, a bag of lettuce has changed a lot of things.”

Distributing food efficiently in mega-cities

Floros believes food distribution will also evolve to help eliminate food waste throughout the supply chain. The current back-to-basics trend—sourcing food from farmers markets, local farms, community-supported agriculture—will continue, he says, but the majority of the population will have to be fed through a more complex system.

Given global changes like the growing population and the expansion of urban areas and mega-cities, for example, small farmers markets won’t be able to tackle food distribution, he says.

“The city of the future will be 20 to 50 million people. It will be very difficult for those people to get to a farmers market,” says Floros. “We will need to become more efficient than that… Our groceries at home will be distributed more like restaurants, which are much more sophisticated about how they order supplies … because they can reasonably predict their needs ahead of time.”

Improved technology, says Floros, should be able to help individual consumers become more like restaurants in accurately anticipating household food needs.

“In the future, with the help of smart, handheld devices, smarter home appliances, and other peripheral systems in place, we should be able to do that better,” he says. Home storage cabinets, refrigerators, stoves and microwaves will be integrated into the food system and networked with distributors, using a coding system that will be able to connect with the packages and items internally, predicts Floros. Externally, the distribution system will track and communicate consumption patterns, types and rates, cooking needs and consumer preferences.

“If a distributor doesn’t have one type of meat, then you [can] get another kind… It will be more directed to minimize losses and optimize what people consume,” says Floros.

Lisa Palmer

Lisa Palmer is a freelance journalist and writer based in Maryland. She reports on food, the environment and sustainable business for publications such as Slate, Scientific American, Nature, Yale e360, and The Guardian. She is a fellow for socio-environmental understanding at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (www.sesync.org) in Annapolis, Md.

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