For years scientists have tried various ways to slow the ripening process, by picking food well before naturally ripe, using plant hormones to slow ripening in transit and speed it up just before delivery and keeping fruit and vegetables under carbon dioxide until they arrive in the shops. Often produce has come from far flung locations, spending months in transit. This time period is critical for keeping food from ripening before it arrives on our shelves.

Adopting these artificial methods invariably removes much of the flavour that we associate with that particular fruit and vegetable.

Ripening is a normal phase in the maturation process of fruits and vegetables. Upon its onset, it only takes a few days before the fruit or vegetable is considered inedible.

So in an effort to control this process, scientists at Leicester University have identified a gene in plants that controls the ripening of fruit, and can be manipulated.

The biotechnologists are looking into the potential for affecting the ripening of crops plants like tomatoes, peppers and citrus fruit.

 Professor Paul Jarvis, who led the project at Leicester, said: “It is incredible to get to this point - it has been a long journey. We have known for some time this was going to be a big breakthrough.”

 Is this all in aid of helping farmers reducing their waste bills?

 The University has already filed a patent application with a view to developing practical applications for the research, this is understandable as they may have made a major discovery, but it unlikely to mean a cheap answer to reducing food waste.

 GM is highly controversial, it has been rejected time and time again by the British and European public, who have deep seated concerns about the technology, and yet this research has been funded by grants from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which is paid for by British taxes.

 So yet again we see publically funded research in biotechnology leading to intellectual patents for private companies. This is hardly a good return on our investment, and certainly doesn’t make any difference at all to the people who feel the cost the most- the consumer.

 However, we are being sold the line of ‘GM to feed the world’,  and here they go again: Chief executive Professor Douglas Kell said: “To ensure we have enough healthy, sustainable food for a growing population we need to find a range of novel solutions to challenges such as improving crop yields and reducing food waste. This discovery brings us one step closer to greater control over ripening so that we have greater flexibility for farmers when supplying produces in the best condition.”

 Is this the answer?

 With an estimated 7 million tonnes of food and drink every year from our homes going straight to landfill - most of which could have been safely consumed, it is unlikely that fruit ripening too quickly is the only culprit. The culpability must lie with a combination of supermarkets, consumers and the media. Why are we actively encouraged to want unseasonal fruit and vegetables from half way around the globe? The issues of carbon footprint aside, it is unethical to demand asparagus in November.

 Seasonal produce, local farms and a reduction in food miles are sensible choices. We need to educate the public. We are encouraged to buy far more than we can consume within food’s natural shelf life, but if we can ‘afford’ to throw food away when it spoils before it can be used then food is too cheap.   If food prices accurately reflected the cost of production, maybe we would be less hasty to throw so much away.

 We hear it so often but yet it falls on deaf ears. Even in these times of austerity, we still do not think twice about wasting food. In the 1950s an average 33% of wages was spent on food shopping. That has since fallen to 15%. It’s great that people can afford more things in their lives, but food is so important, socially as well as nutritionally, so why do we expect food to be so cheap? How do you think they make it so cheap?

Chemical intervention.

 None of us wants to eat food coated in chemicals, either fertilisers or pesticides, and yet few of us want to pay for organic. Most locally sourced organic foods don’t have inflated prices; they just reflect the true price of production. You pays your money you takes your choice….

 A change in attitudes to food, not manipulation of it, is what is needed.


Erica George 27th November 2012