Published on 10/08/09

Decreasing food losses important part of food security

By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia

Worldwide, 25 percent of food -- and in some case 50 percent -- never reaches consumers because it spoils or is mishandled after harvest. One way to advance food security and feed the hungry is to reduce these losses, said Philip Nelson, the speaker at the 2009 D.W. Brooks Lecture held in Athens, Ga., Oct. 6.

Presented by the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, the program is named in honor of Gold Kist Inc. founder D.W. Brooks.

“In India, according to a 1999 World Bank Report, post-harvest losses amount to 12 to 16 million metric tons of food grains each year – an amount that the World Bank stipulates could feed one third of India’s poor,” said Nelson, a Purdue University food scientist.

Seeing problems

The infrastructure to preserve and transport food is simply missing in many countries. Food spoils. People go hungry.

He gave examples:

In a field in Africa, women pound millet grain by hand to produce flour. In some villages, grain is stored in mud huts suspended off the ground in an effort to keep out mice, rats and water. In another town, milk sits in large, covered metal canisters in the sun, without refrigeration.

“Production alone is not the issue,” he said, although he does argue that genetically modified crops are important to solving the world’s food shortages.

He’s seen rice, which has been modified to produce twice as much as normal, result in huge harvests and huge losses. The people growing it had nowhere to store it.

The solutions can start simply, like with a 100-gallon, epoxy-lined tank in Nelson’s lab, or a sterile plastic bag that can be enlarged to hold 300 gallons of tomato paste.

Nelson’s research has had a wave-like impact on farmers, industry and hungry people. Thanks to his work -- and the 100-gallon tank in his lab -- orange juice is now shipped fresh and pathogen-free around the world in 8-million-gallon container ships.

His plastic bag experiments now allow rescue workers to more easily take supplies into disaster areas. In fact, sterile plastic bags containing clean water and emergency food were delivered to victims of the southeastern Asia tsunami in 2004 and of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“While we didn’t discover aseptic packaging,” which is the type of packaging that those sterile bag-in-box packaging and million-gallon tanks provide, “my lab moved it forward,” he said.

Because of his research, Nelson was named the 2007 World Food Prize Laureate, which is the food and agriculture equivalent of the Noble Prize. Nelson’s work “is making this planet a better place,” said UGA CAES dean and director Scott Angle.

Finding answers

Solutions of infrastructure and other problems, Nelson said, must come from different sources, not just food scientists. It has to be a step-by-step focus, not just the reduction of post-harvest losses.

He gives Japanese tomato farmers as an example. There, farmers with half-acre lots put their produce in baskets, which they weigh. They then write the weight on a ticket and put it in the basket. A truck comes by, picks up the tomatoes and takes them to a plant that processes 20 tons an hour. And then the farmers get paid according to tomato weight.

Cooperatives like these can happen around the world. “It has to be organized, but it can be done,” he said.

Nelson’s plastic bag experiments lead to an industry standard called bag-in-box packaging. These days, instead of having to rely on easily damaged metal drums, 90 percent of tomatoes are aseptically boxed and sent worldwide, and bag-in-box packaging is used in more than 180 countries.

It doesn’t stop with tomatoes. Mangoes from northern India are now finding their way – in the form of frozen chunks – into American smoothies.

Nelson likens the process to the saying about teaching a man to fish. “I would like to add to that,” he said, “teach a man to preserve his fish, and he won’t only feed himself and his community, but he’ll have money in his pocket.”

(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Stephanie Schupska is the communications coordinator with the University of Georgia Honors College.