Thijs Defraeye appointed Special Professor at University of Wageningen

Thijs Defraeye: Digital science against food waste. Image: EmpaThijs Defraeye: Digital science against food waste. Image: Empa

Empa researcher Thijs Defraeye has been appointed Special Professor Data and Simulations for Self-care Postharvest Fresh-food Supply Chains at the University of Wageningen’s group of Food, Quality and Design. Defraeye sets out to understand where and when exactly postharvest quality loss occurs for each single fruit or vegetable, in each of the hundreds of shipments in a supply chain.

At Empa, Defraeye works on increasing shelf life, preventing food loss, and making supply chains resilient through better decision-making and logistics. With a dedicated team, he aims to get a few steps closer to providing consumers worldwide with nutritious, appealing, and affordable fresh food to help fight hunger, malnutrition, and obesity. In his research, he works with physics-based modeling and data-upcycling. Defraeye: "I am extremely glad to be at Wageningen University and contribute a piece of the puzzle."

Defraeye studied civil engineering at KU Leuven and completed his studies in 2006. "After graduating, I was sure I would never stand on a construction yard, I needed another challenge." He then dove into a PhD in engineering at KU Leuven on understanding convective drying processes in porous materials. After that, he changed tracks and started to work in postharvest food science and technology.

Science-driven improvement against food waste

He visited South Africa several times to work with Citrus Research International on new carton designs and new cooling protocols for citrus export. During these visits, he was really inspired by the potential for science-driven improvement, the fact that his specific skillset could bring a change, and the extreme drive of the researchers and cold-chain stakeholders to make a change and innovate. "This collaboration was one of the key drivers for me to build up a research line in postharvest science", he says.

In the upcoming years, beside optimizing shelf life and reducing food loss, Defraeye will look for ways to reduce the stakeholder involvement for in-transit monitoring, tailored decision-making, and logistics interventions. He plans to tackle this by self-care food systems. In this concept, the food and its data - not the stakeholders in the supply chain - are the main driver to steer intelligent decisions, and propose actions to extend the food’s life from farm to fork. The focus will be on domestic and imported fruit, vegetables and ornamentals.