Tackling food loss and waste through plant science

    24 August 2020

    A safe and stable food supply became a national talking point during the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    As anxious Australians filled their trollies and purchased additional freezers for food storage, the agricultural sector was reminding them that Australia’s food production system is so strong that three quarters of what is produced by our farmers is above our needs and able to be exported.

    Even in a food-secure nation like Australia, there is room for improvement. Pests, weeds and diseases continue to be major threats to the production, profitability and sustainability of Australia’s farming sector, leading to food loss. At the other end of the spectrum, Australia wastes more than five million tonnes of food to landfill each year.

    On a global scale, the picture is more grim. Drought is a major contributor to food loss when crops are in the field. Between 2006-2016 drought accounted for 83 per cent of all global crop losses. Looking specifically at the developing world, up to 50 per cent of all crops succumb to pests, crop diseases or post-harvest losses.

    Food is also lost between the harvest and consumer stages due to issues like inadequate storage or transport logistics. Losses in this stage vary significantly by region – in central and southern Asia, it’s as high as 21 per cent while at just six per cent in Australia and New Zealand.

    Food loss would be even higher without the innovations of the plant science industry. Herbicides, fungicides and insecticides continue to provide the world’s crops with vital protection against insects, diseases and weeds during production and harvest. Without them, global crop losses could as much as double each year.

    Over $20 billion of Australia’s total agricultural output is attributable to and enabled by pesticides. Biotech crops help to prevent pre-harvest losses by protecting against threats such as diseases and pests which can cost farmers 60-80 per cent of their yield in some regions.

    The produce that is not lost through pests, weeds, disease and drought is still not immune to being wasted. Food waste contributes to about eight per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and can cause as much damage to our planet as plastic waste. Food is wasted for cosmetic reasons like size, shape or colour, by consumers who misunderstand “best before” labels and general overbuying. During the COVID-19 pandemic it is estimated food waste has more than doubled due to restaurants being closed with that produce unable to be redirected to consumers.

    Governments around the world are tackling the issue of food waste through the UN Sustainable Development Goal of halving food waste by 2030. These efforts have a strong ally in the plant science industry. A great example is Arctic Apples. Developed using CSIRO technology by a Canadian company and now released in the US, these gene-edited apples essentially eliminate browning and are therefore less likely to be thrown away, cutting food waste. It’s an ideal solution in nations where consumer demands for the “perfect” fruit and vegetables means that half of all produce is thrown away.

    This is just the beginning. If nations truly embrace the power of plant science, they will find a wealth of ways to contribute to global food security. The need to work together on global solutions has never been as important than in these uncertain times.

    Read the full CropLinks edition.