Two years ago, while the world was navigating the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of eight science of food experts from different corners of the globe came together to tackle another pressing crisis: food and nutrition insecurity. Working across time zones from Singapore to Costa Rica and bringing together a collective experience spanning academia, industry, and government, they established IFT’s Food and Nutrition Security Steering Committee and quickly got to work.
“We took on a formidable, but exciting task,” says John Ruff, IFT’s chief science advisor who played a leading role in convening the group, “identifying key challenges in food and nutrition security worldwide and elevating solutions based in science and technology.” That task was driven, in part, by some staggering statistics: each year, one-third of food globally is never consumed, contributing to more than 1 billion tons of food waste and costing the global economy $1 trillion. Meanwhile, one in nine people worldwide lives in hunger.
Below, Ruff tells us more about the committee’s accomplishments, plans, and the issues that drive its ongoing work. “What we’ve found so far is that the more we reach out to others and engage them, the more they reach back to us,” he says. “This is becoming a blueprint for how we want to do future initiatives.”
What gave rise to the Food and Nutrition Security Steering Committee (FNSSC)?
The idea to form the committee was inspired by a 1969 book called 101 Problems in Food Science and Technology, authored by a group of U.S. professors who were heads of food science departments. They identified 101 problems that food science could solve to improve the global food supply. When my colleagues and I reviewed this book, we found that, not surprisingly, many of these problems had been solved, yet there were also many that had not—and many new challenges that had arisen since. Climate change and sustainability, for example, were rarely discussed in 1969, but today they are huge issues impacting food and nutrition security around the globe. We formed the FNSSC to focus on these and other large and complicated problems and promote an understanding of food science’s essential role in finding solutions.
What has the committee accomplished so far?
We decided we didn’t want to write another book. Instead, we’ve focused on producing information quickly, in the form of white papers, so it could be widely shared and acted upon. To guide our efforts, we developed a format—what we call “cross-cutting challenges”—where we identified seven critical and overlapping topics that had applicable food science solutions. The first challenge we chose was food loss and waste. You may have heard it said that if we could stop 100 percent of farm-to-fork food loss, we would probably have enough food to feed 10 billion people or close to it. While it’s much more complex than that, there are a lot of opportunities for improvement, and that’s what we’re interested in. Last spring, we produced our first white paper on food loss and waste; our second paper, on food processing to preserve nutrition and bioavailability, will be out later this month. In just two years’ time, FNSSC has sparked conversation and advocacy around these and other food and nutrition security topics—through forums and panels, at IFT FIRST, via the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in public comments and media engagement, and by committee members reaching out to their own networks, all of which has strengthened our global reach. What we’re really doing is connecting science around the world by connecting people.
How can it be that we have so much food waste globally while, alongside that, there is such high incidence of hunger and food insecurity?
Like most tough problems, there’s no single answer to that because there’s no single issue. It ranges all the way from the challenges in developing countries where crops are not effectively harvested or distributed rapidly enough and go to waste to highly developed and modern U.S. states like California, which has one of the highest food losses in the nation. Our first white paper identified food science and technology solutions to address this problem by exploring how valorizing food processing side streams could both mitigate food waste and contribute to greater food security for the global population.
What does “valorizing side streams” mean exactly?
Whether on the farm or at food manufacturing or ingredient companies, there are often “side streams” that are being produced—for example, spent grain from the brewing industry, which is full of vitamin B and other good nutrients. There are many ways to take those side streams and use them instead of throwing them away. Where food science comes in is to say, “Now what can we do to convert these things into something that’s nutritious and tastes good?” Quite a few companies, including startups, are doing this. There’s a real opportunity here; it’s a growth area.
How does food processing tie in with food and nutrition security?
Food processing is and has always been the most critical technique to produce food that is safer, healthier, and better for us. Processing goes back hundreds of thousands of years. It started with cavemen and fire. To say processing makes food healthier sounds like an oxymoron in a world where people are criticizing ultra-processed foods. But in fact, we don’t eat virtually anything that comes straight out of a farm, out of a field. We do some level of processing, and that’s critical. Yes, there are some highly processed foods that are certainly not foods you want to eat every day, every meal. They are high in salt, fat, and sugar. You don’t want to be consuming them all the time. Most people are aware of that. But the need for processing is at the core of making food healthy.
Where do you see the FNSSC headed in the future and what are your takeaways so far?
One of the joys of this work for me has been how the committee has stuck together, despite the challenges of being dispersed across the globe. I think it’s because of the importance of the topic and the value they see in what we’re doing. We’re already planning our next project, which will take on the problem of underutilized crops. I think part of our success is because of the way we’ve organized ourselves. For each topic we’ve worked on so far, each person on the committee has brought four or five experts into the conversation, expanding the dialogue. This has created a multiplier effect, and it’s getting a lot of traction.
Interested in exploring IFT’s food and nutrition security resources? Download the FNSSC’s white paper on reducing food loss and valorizing food processing side streams. Check out a map of U.S. food insecurity in Food Technology magazine. And listen in as IFT’s Director of Scientific Programs and Science and Policy Initiatives Tracy Fink tells NBC Chicago why date labels on food are confusing—and lead to needless waste.