Food waste reduction: plant-derived fungicide could save millions of tonnes

AgroSustain offers a potential solution to the growing issue of food waste reduction by preventing fungal decay.

Food waste reduction is a huge problem across the globe. While some people do not have enough food, elsewhere millions of tonnes of food is wasted every year. This includes billions of fresh fruit and vegetables which perish due to mould pre-harvest and during storage and transportation.

There are a number of biological and chemical fungicides that can help mitigate the problem – but these come with their own problems for both human and environmental health. They also present specific challenges including the issue of fungal resistance to these products, as well as companies failing to offer treatment for produce post-harvest.

Swiss startup AgroSustain aims to tackle this problem head on with a number of new anti-fungal products that can be used post-harvest during packaging and distribution. Olga Dubey, founder and CEO of AgroSustain, talks about the benefit of the new products and how they can clean up the food waste industry – reducing mould, waste and the food industry’s carbon footprint.

What is the current state of food waste in Europe? What are some of the main challenges of food waste reduction?

Looking at the data from the Federal Office of Agriculture for the United Nations, you can see that every year one third of the food produced globally (in our case, fruits and vegetables) is being wasted. There are many reasons for it, some of which take place in the pre-harvest – such as diseases, mechanical damages or crops left in the fields – and others in the post-harvest: pests, natural drying, mechanical damages, lack of equipped storage facilities, just to name a few. The other big reason for food waste, which accounts for €8.9bn annually, is so-called fridge and plate waste.

This is one big problem but at this stage we are focusing on one small niche, which is food waste created by moulds. Every year we are losing €30m of fresh fruit and vegetables infected by mould, starting at pre-harvest and going right through to the end consumer. Around €6.95bn is lost in the field; €10.70bn in the post-harvest and distribution; and a slightly smaller number in fridges, so we need to find an alternative solution to traditional ones – which are mainly represented by chemical pesticides. These might have potential negative impacts on both human health and the environment.

Can you tell me a little about AgroSustain? How does it work and how is it developed?

AgroSustain was incorporated in May 2018 following a discovery which occurred during my PhD studies at the University of Lausanne, where I found a plant coming from a broadly spread family, which had a very strong resistance to mould.

I found this very exciting – why was this plant so resistant to mould? Using a lot of different approaches and focusing on chemical analysis, I was able to identify a plant-derived anti-fungal compound which provided the foundation of AgroSustain’s patented technology. Currently, our research and development team, under the supervision of the Chief Technical Officer Sylvain Dubey, is working on developing the first product of AgroSustain.

We are developing three lines of product. The first one is for the most transported crops, such as bananas, avocado, pineapple and mango: products can be dipped into the liquid solution, packed and then shipped. Around €19.7bn of bananas are transported every year and on average there is a loss of 5% to 10% during transportation from mould alone. By protecting these crops from moulding we can secure a lot of the food that is produced.

The second product is for the most stored crops, such as apples and potatoes. These incur higher losses, as we need to store them up to six months – for the first three to four months there are not that many losses as the skin of the vegetables is quite tough; but in the last few months, when the skin get softer and permits easy entry for moulds, we are losing around 50% of the remaining stocks, which would be around 25% of total losses that happens during storage of these crops. In this case we are proposing to spray our solution onto the top of the storage crops to optimise food waste reduction.

The third product is for the most perishable crops, such as strawberries and other berries. Transportation is short – just one week – but we are losing them non-stop. By protecting them during the storage and transportation time we can secure around 30% more produce.

In order to put these product lines on the EU and USA markets, AgroSustain needs to certify its product by performing toxicity studies. The first studies done show they do not have carcinogenic or mutagenic properties. We are now going through the next step of product certification. Overall, we are optimistic that our product will easily undergo through the requested procedure; as the original active ingredient used in our product lines is coming from vegetables consumed every day, meaning that our bodies are already adapted to it.

How can AgroSustain help identify fungal pathogens present on crops?

Fungal pathogens are like bacteria. They can be easily spread over large distances by the wind and can easily adjust to changing environment and food sources. Thus, depending on the country of origin where fruits or vegetables are coming from, they might have different kind of moulds. In order to establish an efficient strategy for treating these moulds using currently available fungicides, we recommend to our clients first to identify the fungal species present on the crops of their interest and then to select the right fungicide for their interest. AgroSustain is well equipped to perform this line of work and will gladly provide recommendations to food producers. In addition, we are open for pilot trials in order to develop tailor made solutions for our customers, such as food producers, distributors and retailers.

What are further benefits of AgroSustain? How can it help reduce carbon footprints?

AgroSustain is aiming to reduce the amount of rotten fruits and vegetables that will lead to a decrease of greenhouse gas emission. Due to the natural origin of our product, no residues will be present on the food, thus allowing to the end consumer to eat fruits and vegetables with no chemical residues.

AgroSustain SA

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