Making sure the food we grow is good enough to eat

Producing enough food to feed the world’s growing population is becoming a major concern. But making sure the food we grow is safe, nutritious and good enough to eat is also fraught with difficulty.

In developing countries disease and decay can inflict losses of up to 100 per cent on crops that left the field in perfect condition. These losses occur during harvesting, handling, shipment and after purchase by the consumer.

A new Centre of Excellence for Post-harvest Biotechnology (CEPB) has opened in the School of Biosciences at The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus (UNMC). Led by Dr Asgar Ali — an expert in postharvest biology and technology — the centre is developing new technologies aimed at reducing food losses, improving overall quality and food safety. The aim is to increase profits for growers and marketers and make quality and nutritious food available to consumers.

Dr Ali said: "In developing countries losses of between 10 to 100 per cent have been recorded. Tropical countries like Malaysia have a particular problem because of the number of micro-organisms that exist due to humidity. Cutting postharvest losses could add a sizable quantity to the global food supply."

With funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) UK, the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA), the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, Malaysia (MOSTI) and private sector organisations in Malaysia, the CEPB is working with other universities across the world to find solutions to the problem of post-harvest waste. It is also running an accompanying MSc and PhD programme.

Extending shelf life and enhancing storage

In the first research of its kind Mehdi Maqbool, a Phd student from Pakistan, is looking at ways of developing edible coatings from natural Gum Arabic powder to extend the shelf life of fruit. His research is focused on the banana and papaya. These are two of Malaysia’s most common crops but they are susceptible to diseases which occur in cold storage and they also have a short shelf-life.

Mehdi said: "Natural Gum Arabic is already used as an emulsifier in cold drinks and sweets. It is green, biodegradable and safe for human consumption. In liquid form Gum Arabic can create a thin edible film around the fruit which creates a modified atmosphere protecting it from disease and decay."

Dr Ali said: "Farmers are using pesticides to reduce these diseases. But we are trying to develop technologies that are free from synthetic chemicals and fungicides. We are using natural based products and bio-fungicides, or physical treatments such as ozone and negative ions, to enhance the storage and shelf life of tropical fruits such papaya, banana and tomatoes. Our research findings have already been published in major international journals in the area of food science and technology."

The team have already proved the concept of their technology and are now negotiating with industry to trial their product.

Research priority

The new centre is a joint venture with the School of Biosciences in Nottingham. It is one of 13 Malaysia Research Priority Groups which complement and overlap the global research priorities at The University of Nottingham UK.

Professor Jerry Roberts, Academic Champion of the University’s Global Food Security Priority Group, said: "The opening of this new Centre of Excellence is a good example of the work that is being undertaken across the University’s campuses in the area of Global Food Security. The centre will act as a focal point for our research to reduce post harvest losses of fruits and vegetables and will provide the opportunity for staff in industry to receive the training necessary to limit waste in the food chain."

Global Food Security is a key project within the University’s new appeal, Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, which is delivering the University’s vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future. The University is ideally positioned — scientifically, geographically and politically — to make a significant contribution to global food security. More information is available at

The University has been awarded a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education, for its research on Global Food Security — which includes everything from growing more crops with less fertiliser, to improving the nutrition, safety and taste of food on the plate.