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Why Some Farmers Are Going Bananas Over Food Waste

A Queensland couple who pioneered transforming reject bananas into banana flour want to inspire other growers to think innovatively about fighting food waste.

Krista Watkins recalls the “incredibly disheartening” feeling of having to toss away tonnes of green Lady Finger bananas that weren't yellow enough nor the right shape for supermarket shelves. 

“My husband Rob would come home every Friday night with a long face because he had just thrown out this beautiful produce, simply because there wasn’t an alternative market or industry that could take them,” she told 10 daily. 

“This is your livelihood -- something you put a lot of time, energy, money and love into producing … it was really hard.” 

That was about a decade ago, when dealing with exorbitant food waste was compounded by two cyclones that whipped through the couple's banana plantation in the Atherton Tablelands of tropical north Queensland. 

Krista and Rob Watkins with their two daughters. Photo: Supplied

Now their business, is the first and biggest commercial producer of gluten-free green banana flour in the world -- and they now have their sights on everything from mushrooms and berries to ginger, turmeric and even peas.

The couple started started using divergent thinking when they noticed wallabies and cattle were breaking fences to reach their dump pile of green bananas.

Then came the "aha!" moment when Krista's husband accidentally drove over a cluster of the fruit.

"Where most people would see waste, he saw an opportunity: it looked like flour to him," she said.

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The couple began peeling and drying the fruit to produce six kilos of gluten-free banana flour each week.

"It just blossomed from there, really," Krista said.

To cut crippling costs, they patented their own drying technology that processed a banana into powder in under ten minutes.

Krista and Rob Watkins pioneered turning reject green bananas into banana flour. Photo: Supplied

Then came the realisation green banana flour was the richest known source of resistant starch.

"People were using it as a gluten-free alternative, while others who had gut issues were noticing they were feeling a lot better. That pushed us to do some investigations into this powder," Krista said.

The Therapeutic Goods Association (TGA) listed the product as a complimentary medicine for cholesterol, diabetes and weight loss in 2017.

Krista said responding to consumer needs for "authentic, functional food" has been part of her company's success from day one.

"It's all about getting the science right behind the scenes and making it easy for people to translate that into their lives," she said.

"A lot of the larger companies who produce convenience foods are becoming conscious that this is what consumers are looking for."

Beyond Bananas

For about five years, Krista and Rob focused on fine-tuning and commercialising banana flour. They then turned their attention to other fresh produce in need of alternative markets.

"There is a global community of horticulture dealing with this problem," she said.

Generally 60 percent of all all produce will have a purpose for sale -- usually as a fresh fruit or vegetable item -- and 40 percent is thrown away.

The couple started working with sweet potato growers in the region, before taking on 60 metric tonnes of broccoli at a time and processing that into powder.

"We've been playing with all sorts of things -- mushrooms, berries, pumpkins .. ginger, turmeric, peas and beans!" Krista said.

'Magic In The Middle'

At the same time, they've been building facilities in regional areas and a cooperative of growers, who have access to process their own products.

"They can process it for their own sales network, or we have the expertise to get it into the market," she said.

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At the business' core is creating a "vertical integration model" for farmers and growers.

"Just because it is produce that doesn't have a purpose at that point, the farmer still needs to be able to get some value from it," she said.

"By making magic happening in the middle, we've been able to do it in a way that is commercially viable."

The business will soon be developing a plant with eight to ten times its current capacity, with two additional sites earmarked for next year.

Krista Watkins. Photo: Supplied

Krista, who won the National Rural Women's Award last year,  will be speaking at the Asia Pacific (APAC) Food Safety Conference in Sydney next week.

She wants to encourage other primary producers to "have a go" at combating alarming levels of food waste.

"This isn't going to be solved with just one person or one idea," she said.

"We need a lot of people with a lot of ideas to really end this huge amount of wasted food."

Featured image: Supplied

Contact the author: ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au