The Global Food Security Programme has published a report identifying the main research priorities needed to address the problems of food waste. Tackling food waste is a vital part of ensuring food security in the future. ‘Food Waste within Global Systems’ identifies research priorities throughout the food supply chain, from production through to consumers.
Part of the mission of the IFR is to increase the sustainability of the food chain to further the production of safe healthy foods, including addressing some of the issues associated with food waste. In particular, we are conducting innovative research in:
- Increasing shelf life
- Reducing microbial spoilage of food
- Exploiting food waste
Increasing the shelf life of food
Working extensively with the food industry the IFR is developing safe, sustainable ways in which shelf-life can be extended.
Professor Mike Peck commented “Scientists at IFR are delighted to have had the opportunity to work closely with colleagues in the food industry on the ground-breaking SUSSLE project. The novel scientific advances made in this project are being used to make a significant contribution to food security and food safety, through a reduction in food waste and the continued safe development of chilled prepared foods”.
Ensuring the future sustainable supply of safe foods will include meeting consumer demand for greater food choice, including higher quality foods, and providing food for an increasing number of susceptible groups such as the elderly that require products made to a higher safety specification. This will need to be achieved against a background of climate change, increased global population – predicted to increase from seven billion to nine billion by the middle of this century – and potential limiting resources (e.g. water, minerals, energy).
Reducing the microbial spoilage of food
Research at IFR is contributing to reduce microbial spoilage of food, and also includes studies to understand how three major foodborne bacterial pathogens of the greatest concern to the UK (Salmonella, Campylobacter and Clostridium botulinum) survive and grow in the food chain.
In the UK alone, food poisoning presently affects millions of people per annum, with significant morbidity and mortality, and an annual economic cost of more than £2 billion. We need to reduce the present level of foodborne illness, and understanding more about the bacterial pathogens that cause food poisoning will help achieve this.
Turning food waste into biofuels and chemicals
Innovative research at IFR is also looking for new ways of increasing sustainability in the food chain through using waste materials. Some waste streams are inevitable at all parts of the food chain, and there are many inedible components that have the potential for exploitation. For example, industrial biotechnology approaches can take such waste streams and turn them into valuable products or resources. Field waste has the potential to be used for the production of renewable chemicals and biofuels and materials such as packaging and plastics.
The Biorefinery Centre at IFR is a focal point for this research on the Norwich Research Park. IFR collaborates extensively in this area through projects such as HOOCH, on the production of bioalcohols from agri-food chain waste. Also, fruit and vegetable trimmings discarded by food processors are being developed as sources of valuable nutrients and bioactive chemicals that may be used in the treatment of disease and to improve health.
Researchers working in IFR’s Biorefinery Centre have also taken the first detailed look at exactly what is in the waste we throw away, at the molecular level. They identified a significant proportion of the waste, mostly derived from plant material, is made of sugars, cellulose and other components that could be used for making bioethanol and other valuable chemicals.
Professor Keith Waldron commented: “The Biorefinery Centre at IFR provides a good example of forward thinking by the BBSRC, enabling the UK to effectively address these problems both at home and across the world.”
This approach ultimately reduces the overall amount of waste, but also adds extra value to the food chain. Through an understanding of the chemical structure of this waste material, and research into how to fractionate it, we can turn this into valuable products. Biofuels, for example, can be used to power the farm or food processing factory, reducing inputs and the overall carbon footprint.
Definition & quantification of food waste
The accurate measurement of food waste and losses is vital to begin to deal with the challenges of food waste and IFR, along with WRAP, are the UK partners in the recently started FUSIONS project which aims to improve the definition and quantification of food waste to help achieve a reduction of 50% in food waste by the year 2020.