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5. Post-harvest Treatments Designed to Manipulate the Environment around Produce in Order to Enhance Quality

5.1 Modified atmosphere storage

When used as supplements to keeping fresh horticultural perishables within their optimum ranges of temperature and relative humidity, controlled atmospheres (CA) or modified atmospheres (MA) can serve to extend their post-harvest-life (Table 6). Optimum oxygen and carbon dioxide concentrations lower respiration and ethylene production rates, reduce ethylene action, delay ripening and senescence, retard the growth of decay-causing pathogens, and control insects. CA conditions which are not suited to a given commodity can, however, induce physiological disorders and enhance susceptibility to decay.

Several refinements in CA storage technology have been made in recent years. These include: the creation of nitrogen-on-demand by separation of nitrogen from compressed air through the use of either molecular sieve beds or membrane systems; use of low (0.7 to 1.5 percent) oxygen concentrations that can be accurately monitored and controlled; rapid establishment of CA, ethylene-free CA, programmed (or sequential) CA (such as storage in 1 percent O2 for 2 to 6 weeks followed by storage in 2-3 percent O2 for remainder of the storage period), and dynamic CA where levels of O2 and CO2 are modified as needed based on monitoring specific attributes of produce quality, such as ethanol concentration and chlorophyll fluorescence.

The use of CA in refrigerated marine containers continues to benefit from technological and scientific developments. CA transport is used to continue the CA chain for commodities (such as apples, pears, and kiwifruits) that had been stored in CA immediately after harvest. CA transport of bananas permits their harvest at a more advanced stage of maturity, resulting in the attainment of higher yields at the field level. In the case of avocados, CA transport facilitates use of a lower shipping temperature (5 °C) than if shipped in air, since CA ameliorates chilling injury symptoms. CA in combination with precision temperature management allows insect control without the use of chemicals, in commodities destined for markets that have restrictions against pests endemic to exporting countries and for markets with a preference for organic produce.

Range of storage
duration (months)


More than 12

Almond, Brazil nut, cashew, filbert, macadamia, pecan, pistachio, walnut, dried fruits and vegetables


Some cultivars of apples and European pears


Cabbage, Chinese cabbage, kiwifruit, persimmon, pomegranate, some cultivars of Asian pears


Avocado, banana, cherry, grape (no SO2), mango, olive, onion (sweet cultivars), some cultivars of nectarine, peach and plum, tomato (mature-green)


Asparagus, broccoli, cane berries, fig, lettuce, muskmelons, papaya, pineapple, strawberry, sweet corn; fresh-cut fruits and vegetables; some cut flowers.

Table 6: Classification of horticultural crops according to their controlled atmosphere storage potential at optimum temperatures and relative humidities.

The use of polymeric films for packaging produce and their application in modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) systems at the pallet, shipping container (plastic liner), and consumer package levels continues to increase. MAP(usually designed to maintain 2 to 5 percent O2 levels and 8 to 12 percent CO2 levels) is widely applied in extending the shelf-life of fresh-cut fruits and vegetables. Use of absorbers of ethylene, carbon dioxide, oxygen, and/or water vapor as part of MAP is increasing. Although much research has been done on the use of surface coatings to modify the internal atmosphere within the commodity, commercial applications are still very limited due to inherent biological variability of commodities.

Figure 16: Retail display of fresh cut vegetables

At the commercial level, CA is most widely applied during the storage and transport of apples and pears. It is also applied to a lesser extent on kiwifruits, avocados, persimmons, pomegranates, nuts and dried fruits. Atmospheric modification during long-distance transport is used for apples, avocados, bananas, blueberries, cherries, figs, kiwi-fruits, mangoes, nectarines, peaches, pears, plums, raspberries and strawberries. Technological developments geared toward providing CA during transport and storage at reasonable cost (positive benefit/cost ratio) are essential if the application of this technology to fresh fruits and vegetables is to be expanded.

Figure 17: Retail display of fresh cut fruits

Although MA and CA have both been shown to be effective in extending the post-harvest life of many commodities (Table 6), their commercial application has been limited by the relatively high cost of these technologies. There are however a few cases in which a positive return on investment (cost/benefit ratio) can be demonstrated. In a comparison of losses due to decay during retail marketing of strawberries shipped in air and those shipped in an environment consisting of 15 percent CO2-enriched air (modified atmosphere within pallet cover), the use of modified atmosphere was observed to reduce losses by 50 percent (an average of 20 percent losses was sustained in strawberries shipped in air vs 10 percent losses in those shipped by MA). The economic loss of 10 percent value (US$50-75 per pallet) was much greater than the cost of using MA (US$15-25 per pallet).

Use of controlled atmosphere (CA) during marine transportation can extend the post-harvest-life of those fruits and vegetables that would normally have a short post-harvest-life potential, thereby allowing the use of marine transportation instead of air transport for the shipment of such produce. In terms of cost and benefit, savings realized with the use of marine transportation are much greater than is the added cost of CA service.

Figure 18: Modified atmosphere packaging of strawberries (carbon dioxide-enriched air delays fungal growth)

5.2 Ethylene exclusion and removal

Many green vegetables and most horticultural produce are quite sensitive to ethylene damage. Their exposure to ethylene must therefore be minimised. Ethylene contamination in ripening rooms can be minimized by 1) using ethylene levels of 100 ppm instead of the higher levels often used in commercial ripening operations, 2) venting ripening rooms to the outside on completion of exposure to ethylene, 3) at least once per day ventilating the area around the ripening rooms or installing an ethylene scrubber, 4) use of battery-powered forklifts instead of engine-driven units in ripening areas.

Ethylene-producing commodities should not be mixed with ethylene-sensitive commodities during storage and transport. Potassium permanganate, an effective oxidizer of ethylene, is commercially used as an ethylene scrubber. Scrubbing units based on the catalytic oxidation of ethylene are used to a limited extent in some commercial storage facilities.

5.3 Return on investment in reducing ethylene damage

A University of California study showed that the use of an ethylene scrubber in storage facilities used for lettuce significantly reduced russet spotting. The difference in value of lettuce that was protected from ethylene vs that which was exposed to ethylene was estimated to be 20 to 25 percent, which was greater than the cost of the ethylene scrubber. Similar results were found with kiwi fruits, which soften very rapidly when exposed to ethylene levels as low as 50 ppb.

5.4 Treatments to enhance uniformity in fruit ripening

Ethylene treatment is commercially used to enhance the rate and uniformity of ripening of fruits such as bananas, avocados, mangoes, tomatoes, and kiwifruits. Optimal ripening conditions are as follows:


18 °C to 25 °C (65 °C to 77 °F)

Relative humidity:

90 to 95 percent

Ethylene concentration:

10 to 100 ppm

Duration of treatment:

24 to 74 hours depending on fruit type and stage of maturity

Air circulation:

Sufficient to ensure distribution of ethylene within the ripening room


Require adequate air exchange in order to prevent
accumulation of O2 which reduces the
effectiveness of C2H4.

Figure 19: Improper mix of bananas and watermelons (ethylene produced by ripening bananas accelerates watermelon softening)

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