Australia: Waste-cutting sweet potato flour helps farmer win rural women's award

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Australia: Waste-cutting sweet potato flour helps farmer win rural women's award

North Queensland farmer Krista Watkins has won Australia's Agrifutures National Rural Women's Award for her efforts to create health products from fresh produce that would otherwise go to waste. 

It all started with bananas. Based out of Walkamin in the Atherton Tablelands, Krista and her husband Rob ran the country's largest farm for the popular Australian variety Lady Finger.

Eight years ago Rob drove his forklift over a bunch of green bananas that had been baked dry in the sun, leading the pair to come up with a revolutionary idea that would make them pioneers in producing a rare gluten-free flour.

In the process, their company Natural Evolution harnessed unripened green bananas to add post-harvest value, resulting in a product that not only benefits society by slashing food waste but also helps celiacs and vegans alike.

The process uses award-winning technology designed by Rob Watkins that locks in much higher rates of nutrition than conventional food processing techniques. It also produces one of the richest sources of resistant starch in the world, making it a true “super food”. 

Their story was featured in Fresh Fruit Portal in July last year. 

Much has changed since then with the pair now applying the lessons learned to new sectors in a bid to fight the country's food waste problem, which at farm gate represents 10% of gross food production with a value of around AUD$4 billion (US$2.8 billion).

It is this cross-industry work with sweet potato growers that earned Krista Watkins the prestigious accolade in Canberra on Monday night. 

The farming couple have applied their patented technology to process other foods that would otherwise go to waste. They have started with gold sweet potato powder, which last week hit the shelves of health food stores and independent grocers and chemists across the country.

Watkins has already started research into developing by-products for the four most common sweet potato varieties grown in Australia, and claims this is just one example of creating a full-circle income stream.

“The sweet potato industry wastes up to 50 tonnes per acre because of over-supply in the market and supermarket size requirements, Watkins says.

"As a primary producer, it’s absolutely heartbreaking to see so much of your crop that you’ve put a lot of love, care and money into simply thrown away.

"Our approach looks at adding value to reduce waste. It’s a new way of doing business, it’s breaking stereotypes, and it’s conditioning growers to think of alternatives.

Watkins is now looking to try and help more growers in the community solve their on-farm issues, and hopes her success will inspire other producers to think about how they deal with farm waste.

“The average amount of waste per farm is 20 per cent, if you’re lucky. Some farmers in some weeks will have 80 per cent of their crops not sold," she says. 

"Repurposing produce is going to be incredibly important for the future of agriculture, in terms of providing new revenue streams and ensuring longer-term sustainability."

Banana flour - where it all began

Natural Evolution now produces a wide range of banana-based products including from protein powders, gluten-free flour and cake mix, all natural healing balms and even equine fodder. 

One of the more popular items is their Green Banana Resistant Starch powder which research has linked to lower cholesterol, reduced inflammation and an increase in the absorption capacity of vitamins and antioxidants.

Watkins says at least 500 metric tons (MT) – and as much as 2,000MT – of green bananas are trashed across North Queensland farms every week because they are either “too small, too big or too misshapen” to be sold by leading grocers.

“When you think about all of this food and the investment of time, money, energy and love poured into producing it, it just doesn’t make any sense for it to be thrown away," says Watkins.

"Originally we were producing about 350kg (772lbs) per week; now we can produce eight tonnes in a single week, bearing in mind that it takes 10 kilograms of bananas to make 1kg (2.2lbs) of flour."

Krista Watkins says the banana powder tastes like flour and not like bananas at all, with an "earthy and wholesome" flavor that is "quite delicious".


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