April 2, 2020
March 27, 2020
One third of food produced is either lost or wasted. According to FAO, globally there is more loss of food in the supply chain before it reaches markets than due to food waste by consumers. It is to the benefit of all of the stakeholders—farmers, handlers, processors, traders and governments - to work on avoiding harvest and post-harvest losses as a solution to producing food for a growing population. As you'll see, state-of-the-art sensors and accessible data analysis are a key contributor to solving these food problems.
Figure 1: Food loss and waste, according to FAO. (Image credits: http://www.fao.org/platform-food-loss-waste/en/)
Food loss is the reduction in quantity and quality of food in the production and supply chain from producers to the market. Food waste, on the other hand, happens at the market and consumer level when food is not purchased, when it is thrown away before it reaches the table, or when it remains untouched in the consumer's home (see Figure 1).
When food is lost or wasted, it does not just produce a financial impact, but also negatively effects other valuable resources such as land, water, and energy used to produce the food. As agriculture is a major polluter, one-third of pollution from this sector satisfies no real purpose. Food waste alone is estimated to contribute 8% of global carbon emissions, and this doesn’t cover emissions due to food loss!
Figure 2: Food lost in various stages of supply change around the world. (Image credits https://sustainablefoodlab.org/initiatives/food-loss-and-waste/)
Food loss occurs in both developed and developing countries, though the amounts can differ and range from 17-39%, respectively (See Figure 2). This is exponentially regrettable, considering how much of the world's population lacks food security. Fruits and vegetables, along with meat, are the important components that provide essential nutrients and vitamins which could prevent malnutrition.
Fresh produce also happens to be more prone to food loss and food waste, as it is perishable. 56% of vegetables and 61% of fruits are wasted after harvest (See figure 3). Fresh produce is lost at pre-harvest, harvest, and post-harvest stages for various reasons.
Pre-harvest causes of food loss can be due to environmental conditions and agricultural practices. There are well established practices for each crop that can minimize loss and improve yield, especially by using precision farming techniques and tools.
It is food loss at the harvest and post-harvest stages that we need to focus on, as it has not received adequate attention thus far.
The two main contributors to loss of food during harvest are poorly timed harvest time and inadequate harvest methods.
Getting the time of harvest right is very important. Timing also impacts the post-harvest quality of fresh produce and storage. Produce should be harvested only when it is ready, so that it has the right appearance, taste, and quality, as immature produce can be inferior in desired attributes. However, it needs to be harvested early enough so that there is time to transport the fresh perishable produce to market. Technologies are stepping in to help with exactly this.
We (Felix Instruments) have created produce quality meters which farmers and horticulturists use to help decide if their produce is ready for harvest. Dry matter content, one of the many metrics that can be used to judge fruit maturity, can not only be a good indicator of harvest time, but also of post-harvest quality and taste. However, many vegetables are ready before they reach maturity. So, in their case, skin colour, size, and firmness fix harvest time and can differ from crop to crop.
The three produce quality meters from Felix Instruments are small hand-held devices. They use state-of-the-art NIR (near infrared) technology and accompanying software to identifying mature fruits. The devices have WiFi and besides helping to predict harvest time, these tools can also monitor produce quality during transport and storage.
F-750 Produce Quality Meter can estimate dry matter, Total Soluble Solids (TSS or brix), titratable acidity, and external and internal colour. It is useful for a wide range of fruits and vegetables which are harvested at maturity, such as peppers, paprika, tomatoes, pumpkin, etc. The measurements are non-destructive and take only a few seconds, so many plants can be tested in a day.
F-751 Avocado Quality Meter, measures dry matter similar to the F-750 but is designed exclusively for avocados.
F-751 Mango Quality Meter, measures dry matter and Brix and is calibrated for many popular mango varieties.
Harvest methods can influence the post-harvest quality of produce because of the possibility that fruits can get damaged. Mechanical injury through surface abrasions causing water loss, while bruising can trigger physiological damage through increased ethylene production that quickens the process of ripening and decay, affecting storage time and producing damaged fruits and vegetables.
Figure 3: a) The percent of harvested cropland wasted; b) Percent of the crop in each category wasted, Conrad et al. 2018 ( Image credits: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0195405).
There is a 16-36% post-harvest loss of fruits every year due to mechanical, microbial, and physiological causes. There are various stages after harvest where things can go wrong, such as handling, storage, packing, or transportation.
Small handheld tools can be used in simple, as well as sophisticated, storage facilities to collect data on environmental conditions. By improving storage, quality of produce can be maintained and storage time extended. Both measures can go a long way in preventing food loss.
Technology can help in various stages of the supply chain. It is notable that developed countries have less food loss through the use of precision instruments, which can be used in the supply chain to collect information on produce and monitor them. Technology alone cannot, however, solve all the problems of food loss in post-harvest stages. Government action is needed to fix infrastructure. Supermarkets can help by relaxing their stringent specification on the appearance of the produce. Better adoption in developing countries should also be promoted by international organisations. By preventing food loss and waste, we can protect resources and the environment by reducing the demand for food production inthe first place.
Science Writer, CID Bio-Science
Ph.D. Ecology and Environmental Science, B.Sc Agriculture
Conrad, Z, Niles M.T, Neher, D.A, Roy, E.D, Tichenor, N.E, & Jahns, L. (2018) Relationship between food waste, diet quality, and environmental sustainability. PLoS ONE 13(4): e0195405. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0195405
FAO. Technical Platform on the Measurement and Reduction of Food Loss and Waste. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/platform-food-loss-waste/food-loss/definition/en/
FAO. Food Loss and Food Waste. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/food-loss-and-food-waste/en/
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