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Does food need saving? Campaigns of awareness

Does food need saving? Campaigns of awareness

Professor Asgar Ali outlines the importance of the Save Food! initiative, and the need for awareness campaigns to foster greater appreciation of our food usage.

Save Food! initiative was fostered by the Food and Agriculture Organisation and Messe Düsseldorf in May of 2011 to highlight the extent and impact of food losses in the developed and developing world alike. This collaboration was undertaken in a trade fair for world leaders in the packaging sector with an international congress aimed at integrating the interests and inputs of politicians, researchers, businesses as well as members of the civil society. What is the significance of such an effort?  And is there a need for such a momentum?

An estimated 1.4 billion tons of edible food are lost each year. This equates to almost one third of food that is produced for human consumption. Such a massive loss in edible food does not only aggravate poverty and starvation, but also highlights a resurging problem of resource wastefulness. In an era of exponential population growth, it is important to meet the increasing demands of the population in a sustainable fashion to allow future generations to meet their needs. Consequently, resources (water, fertiliser etc.) that are used in the production of food that will be subsequently lost, surface as an environmental hazard.

FAO undertook a study into the extent of food losses, as well as the causes and possible means of prevention. During this study, countries were grouped into classes and analysed separately: high/middle income and low income countries. Food losses are likely to occur at almost any stage of the production and delivery chain. In the agricultural sector losses can occur due to crop production patterns, infrastructure, marketing chains or food use practices. It was identified that in low income countries food losses were most likely to occur during the initial stages of the food delivery chain and could be attributed to financial, managerial and technical failures. With regards to high income nations, the losses were most frequent at the final stages of the food delivery chain, and were mostly attributed to retailer or consumer behaviour overemphasizing the appearance quality. In North America and Europe per capita food waste at the consumer level was estimated at 95 – 115 kg/year, while that figure in Sub-Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia was estimated at a mere 9 – 11 kg/year. Thus, this highlights the need for awareness campaigns in high/middle income nations to foster a sense of appreciation and vigilance with regards to food use. Meanwhile, further investigation is required at low income nations to elucidate the issues encountered at such nations.

It is evident that the consumers in low income nations suffer from issues related to access rather than supply. Therefore, enhancing the efficiency of the delivery of food products within this chain could be a plausible solution for food insecure communities. Such an achievement could have an impact by reducing food prices, consequently increasing the purchasing power of the consumers. In ASEAN countries postharvest losses have been estimated at 20 – 50% of harvested goods, while in extreme cases the losses can exceed the noted 50%. Postharvest losses are the losses that occur in agricultural goods during the delivery of the food products from the farms to the consumers as a result of mishandling in transportation and storage.  These losses are mainly attributed to deficiencies in terms of technologies and facilities as well as lack of trained personnel. A few scenarios can be illustrated in low income societies that highlight the need for basic training and provision of facilities. Firstly, degradation of food products as a result of the untimely delivery and inadequate storage of foods at conditions that enhance spoilage are common in low income nations. Moreover, mishandling of food products during production or storage, such as premature harvesting by impatient and desperate farmers or excessive use of pesticides to control both preharvest and postharvest diseases may compromise the safety qualities of the food product. In order for low-income nations to combat such issues Goletti (2003) has identified four crucial needs: a regulatory framework to monitor and preside over welfare issues; dissemination of information pertaining to the market; funding and encouraging postharvest research; and promotion of food safety awareness and trade through ratification of international agreements.

Socioeconomic constraints play a major role in the scenarios explained above, thus efforts from government are dire to address these issues. A few examples that can be noted are enhancing the infrastructure by improving transport services to ease the delivery of perishable products or subsidizing power services or warehouse facilities to allow cheaper storage. Agricultural institutions that may serve as a backbone for farmers, supporting them financially and technically while training and educating them on basic postharvest biology can also be endorsed by governments. Thus, education and awareness are crucial factors which further highlight the importance of research into postharvest biology. Alas, it has been noted by Kader (2003) that below 5% of total funding allocated for agricultural research goes into postharvest research. Minimizing postharvest losses is a sustainable approach and can be performed using rudimentary technologies that are readily available for farmers in low-income nations, such as cooling by refrigeration. Nonetheless, further research into new postharvest technologies that can reduce food losses while maintaining desirable qualities of the food product are commendable.

The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus (UNMC) has established a Center of Excellence for Post-harvest Biotechnolgy which has undertaken various researches into an array of different technologies ranging from the use of natural chemicals such as gum Arabic or chitosan to the use of ozone treatment. Such technologies aim at extending the shelf life of the perishable fruits and vegetables while maintaining desirable quality traits. The quintessence of which is chitosan based edible coatings, which modify the atmosphere encompassing the perishable fruit or vegetable. These food products are essentially living organisms; hence the modified atmosphere achieves lowered respiration rates delaying fruit aging or senescence. Additionally, chitosan possesses antimicrobial and antifungal properties and has the potential to activate the plant defence system which will induce the accumulation of several key phytochemicals. These efforts at UNMC have involved collaboration with several key industries within Malaysia such as MAFC and Medklinn, as well as other reputable universities and research centers.

Exotic fruits native to Malaysia and Southeast Asia, have been the subject of the numerous research conducted at UNMC. Phytochemicals are abundant in exotic fruits, which are underutilised yet are highly nutritious and of high economic value to low income nations. These fruits are a major source of household income for farmers in the developing part of the world. Consequently, the commercial development of these produce will add value to them and financially improve the status of such farmers. Additionally, the nutraeutical value of such fruits has captured the attention of nutrition and pharmaceutical specialists owing to their roles in preventing or treating cancer, cardiovascular and other degenerative disorders. Research in this field highlights the significance of the quality aspect of food security. Recently, it has been established that addressing food security involves investigating and dealing with losses in both quantity and quality of food produce. Hence, research projects at UNMC, which boasts a dedicated team of postgraduate and undergraduate researchers, involve 1) further enhancement of chitosan through the use of nano-technology; 2) development of composite coatings involving the combination of chitosan with gum Arabic or propolis; 3) use of ozone treatment and 4) application of abiotic stresses to extend the postharvest life and enhance the nutritional value of perishable food products. The establishment and subsequent commercialization of such technologies can be anticipated with much zeal.

Global population is growing at a rate exceeding expectations, while food production growth is not matching this rate of increase. Concomitantly, limited environmental resources and the increase in gas emissions pose as major environmental threats, pressing the need for a balance between increased production and sustainability.  Improved harvesting techniques and postharvest facilities will play an important role in increasing food availability in low income nations. The use of readily available information and postharvest technologies is more than sufficient for low-income nations in the meantime. Ironically, the availability of food in industrialised nations is the major threat, breeding a sense of invincibility which leads to overconsumption or over-selective consumption. Thus, changes in such nations should be more consumer-oriented. Education and creating an understanding of the dire impacts of such wastefulness as well as its integration into political initiatives is a stepping stone towards changing people’s attitudes. Alas, in an era of globalisation and climate change, problems will seemingly continue to increase, hence the need for efforts such as Save Food!.

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Originally launched: 1999.

Relaunched: January 1st, 2016.

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