Using innovation to extend the shelf life of crops

In developed economies where cold chain transportation and household refrigeration are widely available, producers and consumers are able to extend the shelf life of their fruits and vegetables by keeping them cool. Unfortunately, in low to middle income countries, challenges such as inefficient harvest practices, poor road infrastructure and insufficient cold chain infrastructure, like refrigerated trucks and cold storage warehouses, make it difficult to extend the shelf life and nutritional quality of fruits and vegetables as they travel to consumers. GAIN’s Roberta Lauretti-Bernhard and Araba Sapara Grant  write.

Shelf life refers to the number of days a food product, such as a fruit or vegetable, is still of an appropriate quality to be eaten. For example, the second a tomato, is picked from its vine, its shelf life countdown begins. With every day that passes, the tomato transforms from fresh and nutritious, to a potential food safety hazard as it begins to rot.

In order to increase the availability of healthy, nutritious produce in these countries, the issues impacting shelf life must be addressed. But how? The Global Knowledge Initiative (GKI), a core member of GAIN’s Postharvest Loss Alliance for Nutrition (PLAN), is taking steps to find innovations that address these issues.

In April GKI hosted an event to discuss current and future solutions to the shelf life challenge. The event, entitled, Transformational Innovations to Extend the Shelf Life of Perishable Crops and Reduce Postharvest Loss, was held in collaboration with the Rockefeller Foundation’s Yieldwise Initiative. The event was held in Bellagio, Italy in advance of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center Convening. Roberta Lauretti-Bernhard, PLAN’s Senior Technical Specialist, was in attendance representing GAIN’s Agriculture for Nutrition Global Program.

The objective of Transformational Innovations was the creation of an Innovation Ambition Agenda. This framework sets aspirational targets for investment in, and support for, shelf life innovations over the next 10-15 years. The Innovation Ambition Agenda will serve as the Rockefeller Foundation’s Call to Action to rally key stakeholders toward a shared vision and shared action to address the shelf life challenge for perishable crops in low-income and emerging economies.

During the three day workshop, participants worked in diverse groups of experts representing agriculture, finance, cold chain, transport, horticulture and more. Their task was to analyze promising innovations—of varying type, purpose, maturity—that, when combined and strategically supported over a 10-year period, could have the potential to achieve an ideal future in which the shelf life of perishable crops is extended, postharvest loss is reduced, and the supply of nutritious foods in increased. An example of such an innovation is Ecofrost, portable, solar powered cold storage units designed to meet the needs of smallholder farmers. These units, which can be shared by up to six farmers at a time, are accompanied by mobile cell phone applications that farmers can use to manage the units’ settings. Scaling similar innovations could considerably reduce the amount of postharvest loss in developing countries.

The major outcomes of this meeting included the realization that current technologies will need to evolve and expand to address shelf life loss. Participants recognized that technologies are only part of the equation. Behavior change around the adoption of new technology is necessary and will require a realistic time frame that cannot be hurried, especially when addressing needs of small scale farm families. In addition, financial investments in technologies and new innovations need to be more collaborative between governments, private sector and research institutions, particular with regard to designing, field testing and then marketing new technologies. Lastly, participants agreed that maintaining and promoting nutrition quality must be a priority.

Published 4 May 2017