NIFA-Supported Research Innovates to Reduce Food Loss and Waste: An Interview with Robert Nowierski

Posted by Jean Buzby, USDA Food Loss and Waste Liaison in

Food and Nutrition
Health and Safety

Jan 12, 2021

Closeup of a shopper’s hand picking an avocado in a grocery store bin
New packaging technology can extend the shelf-life of produce such as avocados, reducing food loss and waste. Photo credit: USDA

The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is USDA’s extramural science-funding agency within USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics mission area. What is NIFA doing to help reduce food loss and waste? This interview features insights from Robert Nowierski, NIFA, National Program Leader for Bio-Based Pest Management.

Buzby: For those who don’t know much about NIFA, can you please share the big picture?

Nowierski: Sure, NIFA’s mission is to invest in and advance agricultural research, education, and extension to solve societal challenges, such as how to reduce food loss on the farm and food waste later in the supply chain, such as extending the shelf life of perishable food. NIFA doesn’t conduct research, education, and extension activities, but we help support them at national, regional, state, and local levels, while guiding national leadership and strategy in these key priority areas. We partner with the Land-Grant University System, as well as other public colleges and universities, government agencies, and private and nonprofit organizations to find science-driven solutions to the challenges facing food, agriculture, and the environment and issues impacting both rural and urban communities across the nation.

Buzby: Are these partnerships all through grants?

Nowierski: NIFA supports research, education, and extension activities at partner institutions through competitive grants, capacity funds, and interagency agreements. Noncompetitive capacity funds are authorized by Congress to support research, education, or extension activities at land-grant institutions on topics of importance to a state or region, in alignment with USDA strategic goals. One example of a NIFA-funded research project, which shows our early recognition of the food loss and waste (FLW) problem, was a 2014 conference held by the University of Pennsylvania titled, “The Last Food Mile: A Conference on Food Losses and Food Waste In the United States.” The findings were later printed in the book “Food Waste Across the Supply Chain: a U.S. Perspective on a Global Problem,” which is available online for free.

Buzby: Why is innovation so important for reducing food loss and waste?

Nowierski: Innovation will be key in helping to mitigate our food loss and waste problems in the future. Innovative strategies in research, education and extension will be needed to minimize food loss and waste from farm to table. And lastly, following EPA’s food recovery hierarchy will help minimize food loss and waste: reducing the volume of surplus food; donating excess food; diverting food scraps to animal feed; using waste oils for rendering and fuel conversion and food scraps for digestion to recover energy; composting, and using landfill and incineration as a last resort.

Buzby: When thinking about the entire farm-to-table food supply chain, how has NIFA supported innovations that reduce food loss and waste?

Nowierski: NIFA has helped support innovations that reduce food loss and waste through its competitive grant programs and capacity-funded projects. In response to this challenge, NIFA developed a Food Loss and Waste Template that provides a roadmap for which NIFA grant programs could help address food losses and waste at the different food supply chain stages, such as production; postharvest, handling and storage; processing and packaging; distribution and retail; and foodservice and consumer losses.

Buzby: What are some examples of NIFA-funded research and innovations aimed at reducing food loss and waste?

Nowierski: One innovation is what we call ‘functional ice” (‘Functional Ice’ Shows Food Industry How to Keep Cool and Reduce Loss), which is an additive-enhanced product that extends food storage and shelf-life by generating lower temperatures and melting more slowly than traditional water-based ice. Additional features allow the slow-release of antimicrobial solutions that protect raw food by eliminating the build-up of spoilage-causing bacteria. It has been shown to increase shelf life of tray-packed poultry thigh meat by one to two days. The researchers are now investigating its potential for commercialization, such as by looking at the best ways to incorporate the technology into commercial ice-making machines.

Another NIFA-funded innovation under development, but showing great promise, is a highly sensitive and specific test strip for major foodborne pathogens (e.g., Escherichia coli, Salmonella enterica). This technology significantly reduces the time required to test pathogens in foods from 24-72 hours to approximately 30 minutes. The time saved to test pathogens may reduce the spread of pathogens and minimize food loss and waste.

Buzby: I understand NIFA provides funds to small businesses to help them develop and market new technologies – and this could help food waste-related technologies and products come to market. Tell us more.

Nowierski: Yes, the Small Business Innovation Research Program (SBIR) from NIFA provides support to small businesses through the Phase I Program for them to demonstrate proof of concept of an idea that could be potentially commercialized (funding level $100,000). NIFA also provides Phase II Program funding for the successful Phase I applicants to take their idea to commercialization (funding level $600,000).

Buzby: So small businesses with food waste reduction technologies should reach out to NIFA to learn more about how USDA might help them bring those products to market. That leads me to my next question. Why is NIFA-supported research an important compliment to private-sector research?

Nowierski: The food loss and waste issue is such a complex problem that it will take research investments and accomplishments from both public and private sectors to help resolve.

Buzby: How do you see food loss and waste actions in relation to environmental sustainability?

Nowierski: It’s worth noting that in 2016, NIFA’s Pilot Science Outcome Committee (SOC) on Environmental Sustainability (led by Nowierski) analyzed NIFA investments across the food loss and waste supply chain during 2009-15. This committee identified food loss and waste as the top science priority that through additional investments, could help address environmental sustainability.

Buzby: Can you share a few more examples of research that NIFA has underway that show promise for reducing food loss and waste?

Nowierski: Sure, we have all kinds of interesting and promising research underway at the different farm-to-table stages of the food supply. Some studies focus on improving packaging, such as a small packaging insert or sachet that slows down produce aging and deterioration and increases shelf-life by at least 40 percent. For example, this technology can extend the 10-day shelf-life of Florida avocados by nine days. We have supported other work developing value-added products from food industry processing waste. For example, one study incorporated high levels of spent grain from the brewing industry in different recipes and using different cooking methods to come up with a tasty sweet potato snack. Other studies explore how to convert food waste into high-value chemicals, animal feed or renewable energy in ways that make sense economically and can support commercialization. One study is developing the technology for economical production of hydrogen from agricultural production and food processing waste. Hydrogen is considered a promising alternative clean energy source because it doesn’t produce greenhouse gases.

This blog series highlights the work of innovators in the food loss and waste world as part of a federal interagency food loss and waste collaboration between 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.

For further reading:
USDA blogs on food waste

Food and Nutrition
Health and Safety

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