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How to deal with biological variation in food?

How to deal with biological variation in food?

Why is one mango different from another? Why is one batch of tomatoes different from another batch? Why are apples from Chile different from Dutch apples? Why does one season yields good quality products while another yields less?

No matter how we produce food, in a traditional way, by organic farming, high intensive agriculture, in open field or in greenhouses, a variation exists in the properties and quality of the produce. For ease of operation, from production all the way though the supply chain up to and including the consumer’s plate, man tries to avoid and decrease this biological variation e.g., by precision farming, by harvesting at a certain maturity, by sorting and grading. Production would be easier, distribution would be easier, retail would be easier and buying food would by much easier. But we do not succeed in avoiding biological variation. Not really. Moreover, life would become very boring!

Evolution is driven by genes, and genes are driven by variation. Life is driven by variation. Our food crops are driven by variation. Being happy in life thrives on variation! So, the battle against biological variation is bound to be lost. We can not beat nature. What we can do is trying to use the existing processes underlying that variation to our advantage. To do that we need to understand the rules of variation, where it comes from, where it is heading to, and above all how it develops or changes in every step of the chain.

During the last 5 to 10 years, exciting developments have been reported in the field of product properties and product quality that include this variation in experimental setup, in modelling and in data analysis, with amazing success. Always! The reliability of statistical analysis and prediction increased from a level of roughly 70% to well over 95%, just by including the variation between individual fruit. What always was considered by the experts, physiologist, physicists and statisticians alike, to be an unavoidable random effect, turned out to strictly obey deterministic rules. Applying this view on biological variation opens wide alleys for new and exciting research, to understand better the invariable rules of variability, the effect of season, weather, region etc.

It is therefore my strongest expectation, that within 20 to 25 years, all research in all food related fields has to include biological variation to really enhance the understanding of the behaviour and the control of our food chain from farm to fork.


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