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ARS Research Innovates to Reduce Food Loss and Waste: An Interview with Gene Lester

Posted by Jean Buzby, USDA Food Loss and Waste Liaison in Food and Nutrition Health and Safety
Oct 29, 2020
All-natural carrot-ginger wrap around a sunny California roll
Edible wraps made from fresh vegetable or fruit puree, like this all-natural carrot-ginger wrap around a sunny California roll, were developed by ARS researchers.

The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is USDA’s chief scientific in-house research agency. More than 2,000 scientists at 90 research centers in the U.S. and abroad work to investigate solutions to agricultural challenges from farm to table. What are USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists doing to help reduce food loss and waste? This interview features insights from Gene Lester, ARS, National Program Leader for Product Quality and New Uses, and Biorefining/Bioproducts.

Buzby: The USDA Economic Research Service estimated that in 2010, 31 percent of the 430 billion pounds of food available for consumption at the retail and consumer levels went uneaten. USDA has identified innovation as a major driver to reduce, recover, and recycle food loss and waste. Gene, how is ARS innovation helping reduce food loss and waste?

Lester: USDA’s Agricultural Research Service supports innovation by conducting, often in collaboration with industry and academic partners, research on new technologies to reduce spoilage of fresh foods and develop new products from food processing by-products and wasted materials. Innovation can turn these byproducts and wasted materials into valuable new products so they don’t ultimately end up in landfills. In other cases, ARS innovations prevent food loss and waste from ever occurring (e.g., harvesting and packaging technologies that reduce damage to fresh foods). This research is primarily conducted within ARS’s National Program on Product Quality and New Uses.

Buzby: Why is innovation so important?

Lester: Innovation can help stimulate job growth and economic development by turning food waste into an economic opportunity. It can help make the reduction, recovery, and recycling of food waste more economically viable for businesses, organizations, and households either by making such actions possible or cheaper to implement.

Buzby: When thinking about the entire farm-to-table food supply chain, where do ARS innovations help reduce food loss and waste?

Lester: Actually, we help reduce food loss and waste all along the entire food supply chain. One example of an ARS innovation for farm use is an automated in-field apple sorting system that separates low-quality from high-quality fruit at harvest, which increases harvesting efficiency and reduces food loss. This system can sort 11 or more apples per second with 100 percent sorting accuracy, superior grading repeatability, and no bruising damage. At the other end of the food supply chain, ARS scientists designed a new clamshell container for fresh-fruit storage that maintains optimum humidity and prevents fruit weight loss in storage. This new container is particularly good at maintaining firmness of sweet cherries and the freshness of litchis, strawberries, blueberries, bayberries, apricots, loquats, and cherry tomatoes.

Buzby: Gene, what is an example of an ARS innovation in the middle of the supply chain that reduces food loss and waste?

Lester: Well, storage scald in apples is a chilling injury that turns apple peels brown and contributes to food loss. ARS scientists found that this problem can be prevented by either a hot water pre-storage treatment or by exposing apples to low oxygen, high carbon dioxide storage atmospheres within seven days after harvest. These nonchemical control measures can provide a consistent, proven approach to reduce losses for both conventional and organic apple producers, distributers, and retailers.

Buzby: I have heard that ARS also develops hardier plants that reduce food loss and waste. Is that right?

Lester: Yes, as one example, ARS researchers in Beltsville, Maryland, released and patented ‘Keepsake,’ a mid-season strawberry that produces fewer rotted or degraded fruits in the field or after refrigerated storage. The fruit are very sweet with outstanding flavor and are firm and tough enough for commercial handling. Several U.S. and Canadian nurseries now grow and sell ‘Keepsake’ strawberries, and nursery and grower demand exceeds supply. ARS also applied for a patent for a second strawberry cultivar with outstanding shelf life -- this one will be called ‘Cordial’ because the flavor is friendly and never tart. Additionally, ARS scientists have identified five Romaine lettuce varieties that both brown less quickly after fresh-cut processing and are slower to deteriorate postharvest.

Buzby: Does ARS provide business support to get new products and innovations to market?

Lester: ARS offers innovation research awards up to $25,000 to our scientists and their commercial collaborator(s) who have food loss and waste innovations ready to upscale for commercialization. In one recent funded project, ARS partnered with California Olive Ranch corporation to investigate the commercial value in olive waste materials. As a result, the team developed a pit-free olive pomace (i.e., a by-product of pressing olives for oil) that was stable in that it does not break down, degrade or change when exposed to oxygen—something which previously did not exist on the market. This innovation can be used as an ingredient to improve food products, such as by adding dietary fiber, polyphenols (to promote health and fight disease) and pectin (a setting agent). Learn more about how ARS technologies can support business innovations.

Buzby: What other ARS funding opportunities are available?

Lester: A separate USDA agency funds research and development grants to help small businesses develop agricultural innovations. Private sector businesses can find more information at USDA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, managed by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

Buzby: Why is ARS research an important complement to private-sector research?

Lester: Each dollar invested in agricultural research results in $20 of economic impact. The vast majority of companies that want to address food loss and waste do not have the facilities to conduct research to generate new products. For example, a microbrewer collaborated with our ARS scientists at the Western Regional Research Center in Albany, California and they were able to develop and market a new food bar from spent brewer’s grain. ARS has many examples where it served as an incubator for product development with the private-sector and reduced food loss and waste.

Buzby: As a final question, is there any new research underway that is particularly promising for reducing food loss and waste?

Lester: There are several but I’ll mention three. First, ARS researchers worked with a private company and found that applying liquid sodium permanganate to sugarcane during storage prevented sugar loss better than other currently used products (e.g., bleach, biocide). This treatment system could increase annual revenues for the Louisiana sugar industry by an estimated net of 1.64 percent or $44.4 million. Second, ARS scientists used a thermal process (200-300 degrees Celsius under limited oxygen) to produce a residue from almond shells (i.e., an abundant by-product of almond production) that when mixed with recycled plastic improves the plastic’s heat stability and stiffness. This innovation can eliminate the use of expensive petroleum-based virgin plastic or other filler additives such as minerals, glass fibers, and clays. Third, ARS researchers developed a new ultraviolet (UV)-B light treatment for leftover mushroom stems. The stems are dried and powdered to create a colorless, tasteless ingredient high in vitamin D that can be applied as a film-coating to fruit bars and fresh-cut melons to help preserve quality, safety, and increase shelf-life. Numerous commercial companies currently use this process and sell mushroom powders as a healthy source of vitamin D.

Buzby: ARS certainly is at the forefront of food loss and waste innovations. Thanks so much, Gene, for your time.

For further reading:

USDA blogs on the topic of food waste
ARS Product Quality and New Uses Program
ARS report: 150 Years of Research at the United States Department of Agriculture (PDF, 3.6 MB)

This blog series highlights the work of innovators in the food loss and waste world as part of the Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative, a collaborative effort among USDA, EPA, and FDA and private-sector partners to affirm their shared commitment to work towards the national goal of reducing food loss and waste by 50 percent by 2030.