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Food Waste: Can Biotech Play a Role?

May 26, 2016

"40% of food grown in U.S. is wasted." - House Ag Commitee Chairman Conaway

On Wednesday, May 25, 2016, the House Committee on Agriculture held a hearing to examine what voluntary efforts can be done to address the issue of food waste.

The hearing was titled Food Waste from Field to Table and witnesses included Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), along with several other experts on the issue.

  • Ms. Dana Gunders, Senior Scientist, Food & Agriculture Program, National Resources Defense Council, San Francisco, CA

  • Mr. Jesse Fink, Managing Director, Mission Point, Norwalk, CT

  • Mr. John Oxford, President and CEO, L&M Companies, Raleigh, NC

  • Ms. Meghan Stasz, Senior Director, Sustainability, Grocery Manufacturers Association, Washington, DC

  • Ms. Diana Aviv, CEO, Feeding America, Chicago, IL

  • Ms. Emily Broad Leib, Director, Food Law and Policy Clinic, Harvard Law School, Jamaica Plain, MA

Congresswoman Pingree testified on a bill she plans to introduce that would put into place incentives, programs and other measures to curb food wasted at the farm level, by food makers, restaurants and by consumers.

Most notably, John Oxford, President and CEO of L&M Companies, testified on many potential solutions to reduce food waste including biotech:
"Advances in new varieties through traditional and modern breeding practices can bring us traits that enhance a crop’s ability to withstand stresses like excessive heat or cold, low water availability or too much water. New varieties can bring traits that increase fruits’ and vegetables’ shelf life or make them more durable for the bumps and scrapes that can happen during the transportation process.

"As USDA moves forward with its updates to the biotechnology and other regulations, we hope it considers all that these advances can bring to the food supply chain and refrain from creating barriers and regulatory burdens that could stifle innovation.

"Through biotech, we may be able to produce varieties with traits that would reduce waste (uniform size/shape, bruise resistance (like the biotech potato)) by having a higher percentage of the crop grown being marketable as fresh. The more we can market, the less we will waste."

Biotech can provide a number of ways to decrease waste of fruits and vegetables from fields to kitchens. The technology is based on suppressing a plant’s existing genes, not in providing plants with new genes that encode novel proteins.

In fact, the recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report, Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects, affirmed that GE crops can help reduce food waste:

Because 30–40 percent of the world’s food is never consumed or is lost to waste, modifications that enhance storage properties could also reduce agriculture’s demand for converting natural lands...

Whereas GE crops may play a role in decreasing yield gaps in ways that support sustainable intensification, it is important to point out that closing yield gaps and boosting agricultural production in many parts of the world will require improvement in agroecologically sustainable farming, irrigation, and fertilizer use...

It is important to develop policy approaches that enable research on GE crops to assist in achieving sustainable intensification without diminishing resources available for the exploitation of proven existing technologies...

Examples of BIO members’ Work on Food Waste

Several of BIO's member companies on producing innovative food products that can significantly reduce food waste:

Simplot Plant Sciences: The estimated economic and sustainability benefits of potatoes with late blight resistance, low acrylamide potential, reduced black spot, and lowered reducing sugars are significant. These traits would reduce potato waste by 10.9 million metric tons and would generate other societal benefits, such as reducing CO2 emissions by 1.7 million metric tons and reducing water use by 317 billion liters. 

Okanagan Specialty Fruits: The non-browning “Arctic Apple” created by Okanagan will reduce food waste. Apples are among the most wasted foods in the supply chain; more than two-thirds of apple waste occurs at the consumer level due to browning and bruising. By utilizing breeding innovation to reduce browning, fewer apples will be discarded and more apple slices will be eaten. 

Novozymes: A food processing aid called Novamyl helped revolutionize the bread industry. When introduced during the baking process, Novamyl allows finished bread to stay fresh for a longer period of time. By increasing shelf life and reducing the number of “stale bread returns” at the grocery story, this biotechnology product brings great value to bakers, retailers, consumers, and ultimately the environment.