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by Priyankar Mondal


In recent years, the increased demand for food has led to increased crop production using chemical fertilisers and pesticides. The land, water, and air have all been poisoned by these chemicals and have even entered the food chain. Numerous ailments, including cancer, abnormal births, and difficulties with reproduction, are also caused by these toxic chemicals. On the other hand, while underdeveloped nations are experiencing a food crisis, developing and affluent nations are producing enormous amounts of food waste that are eventually dumped in landfills. Food is lost in many ways, from agricultural production to the consumer level. Some of this food is recycled as feed for farm animals or to make manures, but over 1.3 billion tonnes are wasted annually around the world. India and other South Asian nations produces 275 million tonnes of food waste annually. The need for more food in the world necessitates more chemical pesticides, and increased food production results in an accumulation of food waste. What if both of these challenges could be resolved simultaneously?

A professor and research scholar duo from Kerala Agricultural University, Thrissur, have stepped up to tackle this pressing issue with their pioneering research on food waste valorisation. Prof. Berin Pathrose and his Ph.D. Scholar Visakh N. U. has been collecting fruit peel wastes from the juice carts on the streets of Kerala to extract insecticidal compounds. Their most recent research, which appeared in the journal Insects and Food Bioscience, demonstrates that using essential oils from fruit waste can help with waste management and eco-friendly pest management at the same time. How exciting is that! To explain further, Visakh told “Every day, a lot of agro-food waste is produced in both rural and urban areas. Through various extraction procedures, this waste can be valorised to yield essential oils rich in bioactive phytochemicals. From citrus fruit peel and other wastes, we have identified many essential oils and standardised the process of extraction. We then examined their bio efficacy against various insects, especially stored grain pests, in terms of contact, fumigant, and repellent activities.

Figure showing the development of aromatic biopesticides from food waste(Left), Dr. Pathrose (sitting) and his student Visakh (standing)

Their research reveals that essential oils derived from Lime, Lemon, Sweet lemon and Mandarin can both deter the storage pests, Tribolium castaneum (Red Flour Beetle) and Callosobruchus chinensis (Pulse Beetle) as well as behave as fumigants and contact poisons. Unlike chemical pesticides, they do not leave any detrimental residues on stored seeds or prevent germination; rather, their antioxidant properties are a bonus. Apart from D-limonene, which is the principal constituent of these essential oils, they detected 21 other bioactive compounds, the proportions of which varied depending on the species. In addition to the toxicity against storage pests, essential oils extracted from Pomelo peel wastes show larvicidal activity against public health pests such as Aedes aegypti and Culex tritaeniorhynchus which transmit deadly diseases such as dengue, chikungunya, yellow fever and encephalitis.

Although commercially available neem-based insecticides have already shown that botanicals have a huge potential to replace hazardous pesticides, India is a very fresh market for the production of biopesticides from food waste. To add further on this Prof. Pathrose told “Almost all plants produce secondary metabolites and other bioactive substances, but extracting and using those requires a sizeable amount of the biomass. Neem is fairly common throughout India. Hence there are many neem-based pesticides on the market there. Chrysanthemum-based pesticides are less common because the plant is not abundant. Therefore, you can use any plant material for research purposes, but if you want to commercialise them for pest management, you must get those that are inexpensive and widely accessible. Rather, we can extract bioactive insecticidal compounds from food wastes from urban households, small vendors, and agro-industries, which are affordable and easily available, compared to cultivated or wild plants.” The duo agreed that these phytochemicals are less effective than commonly used synthetic chemicals against field pests but can be enhanced through further processing. However, using these waste-derived phytochemicals as fumigants in the short term can be an excellent way to protect seeds, fresh produce, and dried products.

Dr. Pathrose sees this as a great opportunity for entrepreneurship development as well. He feels that by using improved formulation technology, the current lead can be advanced in order to profitably utilise food wastes. “The pleasant scent of an aerosol spray containing these essential oils will serve as a room freshener while also controlling household pests and pathogens. Therefore, to create such formulations, we are also considering working with industry as such products are not available in India till now” he added.

It is fascinating to note that Visakh already applied for the KAU-hosted agribusiness incubator programme with his idea of creating an essential oil based food packaging. Visakh informed us "The screening panel exclaimed, "voila! We will definitely provide grants to fund your start-up if your idea is successful." Therefore, it is currently in the third stage of the incubation programme, and I am awaiting the green light from the following round so that I can propose my idea to MANAGE, Hyderabad, as soon as possible. Nevertheless, We still have to do a lot of research to standardize the protocols and make our first prototype.” Visakh admits that getting to this point has not been simple. He recalls how challenging it was to master all the necessary chemical extraction techniques, handling the wastes, and work long hours in the lab during the pandemic. “Each essential oil emits a distinctive aroma during hydrodistillation, and these days if I am extracting one, the lab mates and juniors will come over and inhale the aroma excitedly, which encourages me a lot to exploit these essential oils further” Visakh remembers.

What we frequently consider trash could be a treasure to a creative and inquisitive mind. That was again demonstrated by Dr. Pathrose, Visakh, and the team in their fascinating research. Time will tell if they succeed in presenting their start-up on the Shark Tank stage soon or if they need to dig further deeper into the waste mine in search of gold. But we at Indian Entomologist wish them well in achieving their goals.

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Priyankar Mondal is the Associate Editor of IE and works as a Field Scientist- Entomology at NutriSource Kenya Limited, Nairobi, Kenya.

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Disclaimer: The contents, style, language, plagiarism, references, mention of any products if any, etc., are the sole responsibility of the authors.

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