New food sensors to reduce fruit and veg prices?

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 15th September 2009

The price of fresh food could be reduced if innovative work at The University of Manchester to develop intelligent low-cost sensors is successful.

Scientists and engineers at The Syngenta Sensors University Innovation Centre are working on technology that will allow more scientific ‘best before’ dates to be set by food producers and retailers. Such technology could slash food waste and associated costs.

Researchers are looking at how sensors integrated with Radio Frequency ID (RFID) technology could be used to track real-time stresses suffered by perishable goods from when it leaves the farm to when it arrives with the retailer.

“There are both economic and environmental drivers behind the desire for this kind of technology,” Dr Bruce Grieve, Director of the Syngenta Sensors University Innovation Centre at The University of Manchester, said. “The economic motivation for companies in the food supply chain is to reduce the hidden costs that we all bear when purchasing fresh produce. Only a percentage of that produce makes it all the way to our plates and so when we shop we are paying an invisible fee for these losses.”

“Through real-time inventory management of produce, based upon accurate forecasts of shelf life on a box-by-box basis, these loses may be minimised and costs recouped.”

Britain alone throws away £20 billion (A$38.6 billion) of food every year and food makes up the single largest source of commercial waste at roughly 21 per cent.

Dr Grieve also highlighted the environmental benefits of the technology, which should reduce the amount of unfit produce that reaches the shelves.

“This will help reduce fuel usage by minimising transportation of the stressed and rejected produce. It could also help reduce the environmental impact of unfit produce going into landfill,” he said. “But most importantly for climate change, it could also reduce the total synthetic fertilisers and nitrogen usage per tonne of food consumed. This currently accounts for around 70 per cent of carbon used in typical crop production.”

Dr Grieve and his colleagues will be working with industry to integrate knowledge of the way seeds have been bred and farming techniques with ‘stress profiles’ from sensors to create more meaningful best before dates.

“The first generation of this technology will be based upon silicon but our plan is to the use plastic printed electronics in later generations to make the sensor tags compatible in cost with the humble bar code,” Dr Grieve added. “This is adventurous research and won’t be with us tomorrow. Realistically we will have ironed out the major scientific hurdles by around the end of 2010 and then there is a significant step to translate this into a final device using appropriate manufacturing techniques.”

“The commercial silicon sensor-tag could be with us in about three to give years where as the printed plastic equivalent may be here in 2015,” he concluded.