Opinion Piece - The importance of protecting your crop post-harvest

Published: 17 Feb 2012

According to figures released by the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology, a massive one-third of the annual global food production is lost or wasted. This inevitably, means that huge amounts of the resources used in the production of food are in vain. 
Where though, do we point the finger of blame and where can we make improvements, which will enhance our bottom lines?  
Post-harvest food waste, occurs throughout the supply chain. From pest infestations and severe weather, mechanical harvesting, poor storage and economic factors, such as regulations and standards for quality and appearance can all result in dramatic losses of produce and ultimately money, even before produce reaches the consumer. Some of these factors are of course out of our hands, but in many cases, small changes at each stage of the chain can pay big dividends. 
Despite being a small country, where field-to-fork is achievable, the storage of fresh produce is a massive problem. Temperature, ethylene, pests and micro-organisms are all able to decimate a crop both qualitatively and quantitatively. It is vital to ensure that produce is stored correctly, and it is here that the biggest savings can be made.  
Temperature control has long been known to be effective at protecting food from deteriorating, whilst providing an environment which is hostile to micro-organisms and pests, but it is not a standalone solution - particularly when so much of the produce consumed in the country, is now brought in from further afield. 
Alongside refrigeration, producers need an effective ethylene control solution, to combat build-up of the gas, and to further combat moulds, bacteria and funghi. Ethylene gas given off naturally as fruit ripens will reduce shelf life and increase wastage. 
The presence of ethylene causes fruits to ripen and decay prematurely and vegetable and floral products to wilt. There is no 'safe' level for ethylene and controlling ethylene levels after picking will extend the life cycle of your valuable commodities, allowing them to be held for a much longer period of time. While proper refrigeration and humidification slow decay, they do not prevent the production of ethylene. 
Once produce reaches the consumer, wastage is of less concern to the producer, given that wastage is likely to lead to increased purchasing, but the environmental impact provides cause for long-term concern. 
Retail stores are a big part of this problem, throwing away large quantities of food. Usually, this consists of items that are deemed to have reached their 'best-before' dates. A large proportion of this food is still edible at the time of disposal. This waste is just that - waste. Some stores actively preventing access to poor or homeless people. There are others who do work with charitable organizations to distribute food but sadly this is not the norm. 
Regardless of who or what is to blame, it is clear that the mass-production culture is unsustainable, without more being done at all stages of the process to better protect and use the food we grow. Bear in mind, this from the 2011 Conference on Water, Energy and Food Security - The food wasted annually in rich countries - 222 million tonnes - almost exactly equals the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa - 230 million tonnes.

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