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Guava leaves as preservatives, fish bones as fertilizer — creative ideas for a sustainable future

Winners of the 2018 Elsevier Foundation Green and Sustainable Chemistry Challenge address food security challenges

First prize winner Prajwal Rajbhandari, President of the Research Institute for Bioscience & Biotechnology (RIBB) in Nepal, and second prize winner Dr. Alessio Adamiano, a researcher at the Italian National Research Council (CNR), pose with their awards.
First prize winner Prajwal Rajbhandari, President of the Research Institute for Bioscience & Biotechnology (RIBB) in Nepal, and second prize winner Dr. Alessio Adamiano, a researcher at the Italian National Research Council (CNR), pose with their awards.

From the peaks of Nepal to the shores of Senegal, different communities face similar issues of food security. To face global challenges and empower the population living in the least developed countries, there is a need for solutions that are locally sourced, sustainable and easily reproducible.

The two winning projects of the third Elsevier Foundation Green and Sustainable Chemistry Challenge, which is jointly run by the Elsevier Foundation and Elsevier’s chemistry journals team, do just that: they propose innovative solutions to use guava leaves against food spoilage in Nepal, and to extract natural fertilizers from fish byproducts in Senegal.

Guava leaves as preservatives

Prajwal Rajbhandari was already thinking about to how harness the qualities of Nepal’s natural products in 2014, when he attended a food biotechnology training program in Beijing. Besides medical and cosmetics applications, how else could his country’s natural resources be used? And more importantly, how could it be done in a way that is sustainable and simple enough to be adopted by local communities? The answer, he discovered, was really close and came to his wife Rojlina Manandhar, also a researcher, who suggested focusing on food loss due to spoilage in grocery stores. Maybe guava leaves could be used as natural preservatives.

His winning project, “Guava leaves as natural preservatives for farmers of Nepal,” which was awarded the €50,000 first prize, aims to minimize post-harvest food loss that affects smallholder farmers: up to one third of Nepal’s food resources are lost in spoilage, which is hugely problematic for a developing country whose major economy relies on agriculture. In the lowland Terai region in southern Nepal, and in the mountain areas especially, long distances from local markets, strikes and frequent power cuts create harsh conditions for farmers and vendors. To extend shelf life, fungicides and chemicals preservatives are commonly used – but there is increasing demand of natural alternatives. That’s why Rajbhandari and his team at the Research Institute for Bioscience & Biotechnology are working on a project to formulate water-based leaf extract of guava plant, which possesses antioxidant and antibacterial properties.

Juror Dr. Sam Adu-Kumi, Deputy Director at Environmental Protection Agency of Ghana and an Advisory Board member of Elsevier’s Sustainable Chemistry and Pharmacy journal, said he was particularly impressed by the innovative aspect of the project:

Usually, additives and preservatives are used for the plants, not for the fruits – this is why I love the creativity of this solution. Using guava leaves to prevent spoilage will help farmers have their products on the market for a longer time: they make huge investments, but the amount of products that end up in the markets is so low – and the percentage of food loss is too big, especially in developing countries.

Rajbhandari is President of the Research Institute for Bioscience & Biotechnology (RIBB), which he co-founded in 2011 to work on natural bioresources of Nepal. His institute’s main research focus is the production of safer chemicals with natural origin, which can be applied to the food and cosmetic industries. For Rajbhandari, chemistry plays a critical role in the research and manufacturing of sustainable, plant-based and bacterial-derived biochemicals – after all, he says, “the future is green or not at all.”

From fish bones to crop fertilizers

Near-shore marine fisheries provide a crucial source of micronutrients necessary for early-childhood development, with positive effects on public health of low-income food-deficit countries. But what happens when these areas become deeply affected by climate change?

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the vulnerability to climate change is defined by exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity. Dr. Alessio Adamiano, a researcher at the Italian National Research Council (CNR), is working on improving resilience and empowering small-scale fishing communities in Senegal through his project “phos-FATE,” which won €25,000 for second prize. For his project, Dr. Adamiano is working closely with the Institute of Senegal for Agricultural Research (ISRA), which will establish contacts with local small-scale fishing communities.

Phosphorous, a plant nutrient in short supply in the soil, is vital for crop cultivation but the extensive mining of phosphate rocks, from which fertilizers are produced, have exhausted many of its natural supplies. As alternative sources are urgently needed, phos-FATE aims to recycle phosphorous employing a simple way of converting phosphate-rich fishery byproducts such as shells, bones and skin into valuable fertilizers for agricultural use. At the same time, Senegal fishermen will be able to increase their economic incomes by selling the phosphorous fertilizers recovered from fish byproducts, ensuring another source of income beside traditional fishing revenues.

“phos-FATE proposes an interesting alternative to the common phosphate mining, a process that is highly polluting,” noted juror Dr. Borhane Mahjoub, Assistant Professor in Environmental Chemistry at the University of Sousse, Tunisia, and Associate Editor of Sustainable Chemistry and Pharmacy. “The concept has the potential for high impact on local communities, as it can be easily scaled and adapted for other similar waste such as porcine and bovine bones, far beyond Senegal.”

The Elsevier Foundation Green & Sustainable Chemistry Challenge

The two winners were selected from over 500 proposals received for the third edition of the Elsevier Foundation Green & Sustainable Chemistry Challenge,with projects coming from 66 countries – a number showcasing the scientific community’s growing interest around chemistry and sustainability science, and its ever-growing relevance. As the need for sustainable ideas to tackle global issues is more pressing than ever, it’s becoming evident that chemistry can play a key role in finding practical solutions to urgent challenges.

“The Challenge is an interesting platform to promote the idea of international sustainable chemistry management, especially in developing countries and emerging economies,” said Dr. Helmut Krist, environmental engineer and Program Director of the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ) and member of the Challenge’s scientific jury. “It gives scientists the opportunity to share their projects with a broader scientific community. Chemistry research is often underfunded by national institutions, and it is vital to offer prominent, visible platforms for discussing important issues that have impact on the achievement of the (UN) Sustainable Development Goals.”

The Challenge will run a fourth edition in July 2018. It is open to individuals and nonprofit organizations working to tackle environmental challenges in the developing world. Check the Elsevier Foundation website for more information.

The Elsevier Foundation

The Elsevier Foundation provides over $1 million a year in grants to knowledge-centered institutions around the world, with a sustainability focus on innovations in health information, diversity in STM, and research in developing countries. We work with our partners to widen access to academic knowledge and bridge the North-South scientific gap, readdressing the balance that limits Developing Countries’ involvement in vital research. Learn more

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