We’ve all done it. You buy a bunch of bananas, take one before placing the rest in the fruit bowl and then go on with your life, rushing to work in the morning, walking the dog in the evening and generally forgetting about your purchase. Ten days later, they look brown and pitiful. So instead of making a smoothie or a banana cake, you throw them away, wondering aloud what made them go brown so fast.
And it’s not just bananas. Overall, a third of food is wasted or lost – either before or during harvest, on its way to consumers or, as with bananas in the fruitbowl, after it has been bought.
In our complex and globalised food system, something is going awry between farm and fork. If we are to support a growing world population while cutting carbon emissions and minimising environmental impact, then tackling excessive food waste is one of the biggest challenges.
Bananas, as the one of the most popular fruits in the world, are not a bad place to start. The banana industry is worth $36bn (£28.4bn) a year. But each year hundreds of thousands of tonnes are lost or wasted. The UK-based agri-tech startup Tropic Biosciences aims to change that.
The company wants bananas to last longer – not before they turn brown but before they ripen in the first place. By looking closely at the fruit’s genome, the company’s scientists can locate genes involved in making a fruit hormone called ethylene. This hormone is crucial to the ripening process. The aim is then to edit these genes, so that the ripening process is delayed and shelf life extended.
This could help traders as they move fruit across the world, from producers in regions such as Latin America or Asia to markets elsewhere.
“By extending the shelf life, you can reduce wastage in transportation,” says Gilad Gershon, chief executive of Tropic Biosciences. “Banana is the most shipped fruit in the world. If we can reduce wastage by a few percentage points, the impact on the environment and on margins is quite significant.”
For decades, the race to feed more people has been a matter of how much produce farmers can grow. Questions abound: is your land fertile enough? Are you using the right plant? Did you harvest at the right moment? But increasingly, the world is noticing that much of that food is never eaten in the first place.
The issue of food loss and food waste took off in 2011 when the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) commissioned a special report into how efficient – or inefficient – our food chain was. The study concluded, based on some rough estimates, that globally one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted.
“Think about the land, the energy, the water that goes into producing that food, into getting it to the consumer,” says Rose Rolle, food loss and waste team leader at the FAO. “When you throw away food, all those efforts and resources are also thrown away.”
From their lab in Norwich, Tropic Biosciences works to address this situation from the outset. “You might use different cooling or transportation technologies, but if you address the genetics early on, the impact can be higher,” says Gershon.
Food products made from gene-edited crops are already being sold in the US, and countries such as Japan and Argentina have light regulations in place for such crops. However, in the EU, there are much heavier regulations, considering gene-edited crops on a par with traditionally genetically modified organisms (GMOs), with fewer being developed as a result.