NEPAL – An integrative research team has kicked off a new initiative that makes use of market-based tactics that incorporate consumer and producer studies to enhance the safety of fresh fruit in Nepal.

As a result of government expenditures in related fields and a policy emphasis on food security, Nepal has seen a relative increase in the productivity of several agricultural products and a decrease in poverty rates.

Aditya Khanal, Associate Professor of Agricultural Economics at Tennessee State University (TSU) and main Investigator (PI) on the new study funded by FSIL, notes that although 36% of children under the age of five are chronically malnourished, food production is only one aspect of the issue.

“You can have enough food for people to eat, but if it’s not delivering its full nutritional value by causing foodborne illness, then that supply of food isn’t meeting the real needs,” he said.

Although supermarkets are becoming more common in Southeast Asia, the majority of shoppers still get their produce from nearby farmers, street vendors, or even their neighbors. Produce can pick up and spread foodborne illnesses as it moves from the farm to the market.

According to Ashok Mishra, co-PI and the Kemper and Ethel Marley Foundation Chair in Food Management at the Morrison School of Agribusiness at Arizona State University, consumers take on the risk without labels or guarantees, particularly for vegetables eaten fresh.

Growing fresh vegetables on a farm requires growers to follow good agricultural practices (GAPS), or food safety procedures, because foodborne pathogens can be introduced at any time during cultivation, harvest, handling, and packing.

Agnes Kilonzo-Nthenge, the team’s Food Safety Expert and Professor at TSU, said small-scale farmers are often not aware of risk factors on their farms, and therefore, food safety education and outreach are critically needed to persuade produce growers to adopt practices to avoid and reduce foodborne pathogens in their farm products.

She notes that safer, fresh produce is possible with the use of a few strategic GAPS practices: hand washing, using aged rather than fresh manure, planting produce upwind and upstream from animal wastes, using clean and disinfected buckets for harvesting and testing for indicators of contamination.

This new research project is designed to address production challenges as well as the complexity inherent in trying to create systemic change in food safety behavior.

Data to help in outcome estimation

Khanal and Mishra are economists, and they are aware that knowledge and awareness alone are insufficient; markets must also be considered.

“We want to drive demand and supply for safer produce from both ends. To do that, we’re looking at the grower and consumer sides to create a two-way feedback mechanism that reinforces and increases food safety in Nepal’s fresh vegetable production,” he said.

To determine the likelihood of foodborne illness in Nepali vegetable producers’ and consumers’ homes, researchers will first conduct a survey of both groups, according to AGRILINKS.

They will ascertain the baseline level of awareness about food safety and contamination in fresh produce, as well as whether consumers are willing to pay more for produce handled using fundamental food safety principles. Ram Hari Timilsina, an Assistant Professor at Nepal’s Agriculture and Forestry University (AFU), will serve as the in-country lead and co-PI on this project.

Mishra and Khanal can statistically estimate outcomes using this data, such as whether or not food safety procedures will increase small farmers’ income and financial security.

These studies can then aid Nepali entrepreneurs and officials in making well-informed choices regarding the order of priority for investments in food safety.

With this market-driven strategy, Khanal and his team hope to give Nepali stakeholders a solid roadmap for encouraging quick improvements in agricultural food safety.

They note that everyone is a potential consumer, whether they are a farmer or a policymaker.

“Farmers are the starting point for food production. If we start there with these efforts, it will multiply down the chain,” Khanal said.

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