Along the supply chain, invaluable food is lost and wasted due to improper storage conditions. Platinum might provide a viable and sustainable solution.
By Tony Chen, head of PGM Market Development, APAC at Anglo American
Nearly one-third of food produced globally is spoilt or otherwise lost in the supply chain, enough to feed three billion people. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, this rises to 50% of fruits and vegetables produced in developing countries1. Considering food loss is responsible for the release of 4.4 gigatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions every year, and that it takes up to 50 litres of water to produce a single orange2, food loss on this scale represents a significant waste of vital global resources.
These issues have been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has severely impacted critical logistics, including the availability, cost and timeliness of refrigerated container shipping, as well as the availability of labour to harvest and pack crops3.
Platinum to the rescue
However, there is a new contender to tackle this problem: platinum.
Platinum has properties that, when harnessed in environmentally friendly catalysts, can allow the food or the perishables in a fridge, supermarket, or along the supply chain, fresher for longer.
It does this by decomposing and removing ethylene gas, a naturally produced plant hormone that accelerates the ripening process and affects how long produce can be stored and sold after harvest. Until recently, the decomposition and removal of ethylene was only possible in temperatures approaching 200°C. However, by using platinum in nanoparticle form on a special ceramic carrier, effective catalytic action against ethylene is now possible at lower temperatures, ranging from 0-30°C.
While the extended shelf life unlocked depends on the type of fruit or vegetable in question, the use of platinum catalysts not only means a reduction in food waste, but also supports the opportunity to sell further afar, diversifying the potential retail channels for producers.
One area where the technology offers significant potential is in tropical fruits production. This is a sector in which export volumes have displayed the fastest average annual growth rates among internationally traded food commodities, despite a significant obstacle: the highly perishable nature of these foodstuffs.
Unlocking the Chinese bayberry
Grown mainly in the Zhejiang province, south of Shanghai, the fruit, also known as Chinese bayberry or “yumberry”, looks like a cross between a cherry and a litchi and is said to taste similar to a mixture of pomegranate, strawberry and cranberry.
Sounds delicious, but the bayberry has a very limited growing season — a matter of weeks — and, as with many other soft fruits, it perishes very quickly once harvested. Hence, despite having been cultivated for more than 2,000 years, freshly-harvested bayberries are still difficult to find in many ordinary supermarkets in China, and are even rarer outside of the country.
That could be set to change with third-generation farmer, Hu Haiying, hoping to write a new chapter in the bayberry’s history.
Hu is the president of the Lin Laohan Fruit Professional Cooperative, located in Eastern China’s Zhejiang province. In the 14 years since taking over the family farm Hu has been able to increase the farm’s productivity. Three years ago, she instigated the next chapter for the business, taking advantage of the convergence in online and offline retail, and expanding her sales. A strategic move, it has opened new markets in Shanghai City, Guangdong City and Wuhan City, and almost doubled the business’ sales.
It is in these new markets in particular that platinum catalyst technology, which Hu learned about from a professor at the Zhejiang Academy of Agricultural Sciences, plays an important role.
Each year, around 10% of Hu’s bayberry crop yield was being lost during storage and delivery. The use of the platinum catalyst prevents some of that loss by extending the shelf life of the fruit by four to seven days at room temperature, and 15-30 days under refrigerated conditions (from 0-4°C). This also ensures only the freshest and highest-quality product reaches her customers.
Since learning about the technology, Hu has introduced it across the entire sales lifecycle of her business, including during cold room storage; delivery to the supermarkets; and inside the packaging of bayberry gift boxes sold online for the benefit of customers.
A versatile metal in the supply chain
Platinum based catalysts have several other potential applications in preserving foods.
The most prevalant has been the technology’s integration into high-end refrigerator units, with the objective of extending the freshness of foodstuffs and providing an anti-odour function. Over time, this is likely to become more commonplace across homes worldwide.
Work is also ongoing to explore the technology’s application across other areas, including its ability to prevent mould and bacteria (which can cause infections and allergies), and its potential as an odour suppressant.
With the impacts of climate change being increasingly felt across the globe, there has never been a more important time to seek new sustainability solutions such as platinum catalytic technologies.
1 International Year of Fruits and Vegetables 2021 (Key Facts carousel): https://www.fao.org/fruits-vegetables-2021/en/
2 UNEP Food Waste Index Report
3 How the Pandemic Has Shaped the Future of Global Fruit Production in 2022; Food Manufacturing; 6 January 2022: https://bit.ly/3JnOXuy