ICEF13: The Role of Food Engineering and Technology in addressing Global Food Security

January 30, 2018

FAO describes food security as the point in which “all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”[1]. It’s opposite term – that is, food insecurity – has been historically associated to a growing population, armed conflicts, government policies (or lack of thereof), draught and other natural disasters[2]. Devereux (2000) estimates that more than 70 million people died of famine triggered by these factors during the 20th century[2].

 

The dire predictions of Paul Ralph Ehrlich in his 1968 book “The population bomb” and FAO statistics also published in the 60’s, indicating that 56% of the world’s population lived in countries under famine conditions, led to an international awakening to the challenges of global food security. The avoidance of the most apocalyptic scenarios described by Ehrlich was largely attributed to the Green Revolution in the 60’s and 70’s, spurred by the application of modern agricultural science and significant injections of public investment into farming. The Green Revolution is credited with increasing cereal and calorie availability per person by nearly 30%, lowering prices for wheat and rice, and substantial declines in global poverty, among many other impacts[3].

 

Almost 60 years later, food insecurity has not disappeared. The latest FAO figures[4]indicate that conflict and climate-related shocks led to an estimated 815 million undernourished people in 2016, up from 777 million in 2015. The most threatened regions are parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean and South-Eastern and Western Asia.

 

Food security largely affects developing countries. However, food insecurity also exists in developed countries that do not necessarily have a problem with agricultural production. For example:

 

·      The USA ranks #4 in the Bloomberg’s global ranking of how well countries can feed their own people[5]. However, 12.3% (15.6 million) of American households were food insecure at some time during 2016[6]. Although poverty is a crucial factor, there are others such as distance to shops that offer nutritious foods, availability of such foods[7], lack of education and mental health aspects that affect the food insecure Americans[8]. Bloomberg’s analysis also indicates that the USA’s agricultural research spending is decreasing, and government policy trends may also be contributing to the country’s increasing food insecurity.

·      Historically, Australia has produced more food than it consumes[9], ranking #14 in the Bloomberg’s food security list. However, Foodbank estimates that 3.6 million Australians (which represents nearly 15% of the population) have experienced food insecurity at least once in the period 2016-17; three in five of these people experienced food insecurity at least once a month[10]. Similarly to the USA case, financial stress plays a significant role. However, other factors such as food availability and logistical challenges are also at play, particularly in rural and remote Australia[11].

·      In Europe and Central Asia, FAO estimates that there are 14.3 million adults affected by food insecurity. Bloomberg4 indicates that future food security in European nations may be affected by an aging population that pays less in taxes and demands more social services.

 

When facing new problems, we often look at past solutions that have worked. It is no wonder that the current discussion in food security continues to focus on increasing agricultural productivity. Genetically modified crops were once hailed as the engine of the second Green Revolution[12]. Urban agriculture has also been suggested as a possible solution[13]. However, our future food security cannot depend on a ‘silver bullet’. A holistic answer that includes all stages of the food supply chain and multiple branches of science and technological solutions is necessary. Food security solutions must go beyond production, to include equitable distribution systems, avoidance of food waste and optimisation of input of precious resources such as energy, water, land, and (in some cases) people.

 

The UN Economic and Social Council recently addressed the role of science, technology and innovation in ensuring food security by 2030[14]. Although most of the technologies mentioned are applicable to production, the report also makes mention of the following post-farm technologies:

 

·      Fruit preservation technologies

·      Hexanal formulations

·      Thermal battery-powered milk chillers

·      Nanotechnology

·      Improved genetic varieties

·      Seed and grain drying, aeration and storage technology

·      Innovative packaging

·      Biowax coatings

·      Rice parboiling technology

·      Efficient processing technology for pulses

·      Rice-drying technology

·      Cool stores

·      Cleaning, grading and packing technology

·      Off-grid refrigeration

·      Low-cost refrigerated vehicles

·      Low-cost solar dryers

·      Vacuum or hermetic sealing

·      Agro-processing technologies (crop, meat, dairy products, fish)

 

Drilling down into more specific (and modern) food technologies, Tian et al. (2016)[15]advocate for food preservation technologies that include microwave vacuum drying, nanoencapsulation, nanoemulsions, integration and miniaturization of sensors for detection of food safety risks, DNA barcoding, alternative protein sources, insect flour, nutrigenomics, 3D food printing, and biomimicry, among others.

 

There are more radical concepts that link food production to the market: Enter the “Freight Farms” or mobile crop production systems, which use intensive hydroponic technology to produce leafy greens during transit to the market[16].

 

However, it would be naïve to think that new technologies can simply be introduced in countries that are most affected by food insecurity, without geopolitical context and an implementation framework that accounts for the social, financial and environmental conditions of those countries. There is a myriad of interrelated aspects that make or break the introduction of new technologies around the world, including equity, gender, ethnicity and ideologies (e.g. religious beliefs, trust and acceptance of new technologies).

 

It is also important to acknowledge and integrate local/indigenous knowledge that can benefit the introduction of improved/new food technologies. Such knowledge can include uses of local food crops (e.g. solar drying, preservation techniques, traditional forms and preparations)[17]. The importance and meaning of provenance (where the food is produced, how the food is produced, and who is producing and for whom) for consumers must also be considered.

 

I suggest that we need a roadmap of food engineering and technology interventions that can be optimized for the regions that need these the most. But, how can we integrate all the non-science aspects mentioned above?

 

The Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) framework, which has gained acceptance in Europe, illustrates a way to ensure that innovations in the food chain also account for engagement, gender equality, science education, ethics, open access and governance[18]. This framework was highlighted in the 4th International ISEKI_Food Conference - Bridging Training and Research for Industry and the Wider Community in 2016[19].

 

There is an opportunity now to revisit the RRI approach and others that may be in discussion: In 2019, Melbourne will host the International Congress of Engineering and Food (ICEF13). This congress will focus on the question of how scientists and technologists can apply a systematic and integral approach in the development and implementation of novel food technologies, with a view of increasing food security now and in the future.

 

There are ten conference themes. I encourage you to submit session concepts for the Food Security theme, which will be looking at the interphase between food science & technology for food security and its implementation in targeted interventions around the world.

 

The call for sessions is now open. We look forward to reading your submissions before April 30, 2018. We also look forward to seeing you in Melbourne in September 23-26, 2019.

 

Regards,

 Silvia Estrada-Flores

Convener, Food Security Theme

 

References 

 

[1] http://www.fao.org/economic/ess/ess-fs/en/

[2] Devereux, S. 2000. Famine in the 20th Century. IDS working Paper 105. Pp 40. Available at: http://www.ids.ac.uk/publication/famine-in-the-twentieth-century

[3] Hazell, P.B.R. 2002. Green Revolution: Curse or Blessing? International Food Policy Research Institute. International Food Policy Research Inst. Available at: http://www.ifpri.org/publication/green-revolution

[4] FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. 2017. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017. Building resilience for peace and food security. Rome, FAO.

[5] https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2017-food-security/

[6] https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/key-statistics-graphics.aspx

[7] https://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/pub-details/?pubid=42729

[8] Craig Gundersen and James P. Ziliak. 2014. Childhood Food Insecurity in the U.S.: Trends, Causes, and Policy Options. Available at: https://assets.aspeninstitute.org/content/uploads/files/content/docs/ee/N.Childhood_Food_Insecurity_in_the_U.S..pdf

[9] https://theconversation.com/how-many-people-can-australia-feed-76460

[10] Foodbank hunger report 2017. Available at: https://www.foodbank.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Foodbank-Hunger-Report-2017.pdf

[11] National Rural Health Alliance. 2016. Food Security and Health in Rural and Remote AustraliaRIRDC Publication No 16/053. Available at: https://rirdc.infoservices.com.au/downloads/16-053

[12] 'Is genetically modified crop the answer for the next green revolution?' 2010, GM Crops, 1, 2, pp. 68-79, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 29 January 2018.

[13] https://www.forbes.com/sites/kerryadolan/2012/05/10/the-new-green-revolution-a-vision-for-small-scale-urban-farming/#7386dbc97b0d

[14] Report available at: http://unctad.org/meetings/en/SessionalDocuments/ecn162017d3_en.pdf

[15] Tian, J, Yada, RY, & Bryksa, BC 2016, 'Feeding the world into the future - food and nutrition security: the role of food science and technology', FRONTIERS IN LIFE SCIENCE, vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 155-166. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21553769.2016.1174958

[16] http://blog.hazeltechnologies.com/article-32-23-food-tech-startups-that-could-change-the-world-in-2016

[17] Oniang'o R, Allotey J, Malaba S. The food chain: contribution of indigenous knowledge and practices in food technology to the attainment of food security in Africa. Journal Of Food Science [serial online]. January 1, 2004;69(3):CRH87-CRH91. Available from: FSTA - Food Science and Technology Abstracts, Ipswich, MA. Accessed January 29, 2018.

[18] Silva, CL, Costa, R, & Pittia, P 2017, 'Responsible research and innovation in the food value chain', Journal of Food Engineering, vol. 213, p. 1. Available from: 10.1016/j.jfoodeng.2017.07.018. [29 January 2018].

[19] http://www.isekiconferences.com/vienna2016/index.php/programme

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