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Food scientists face many concerns today. But that was also the case 40 years ago when the Third International Congress of Food Science and Technology convened in Washington, D.C., and founded the International Union of Food Science and Technology (IUFoST). Let’s compare briefly the major thrusts of the Third International Congress in 1970—SOS/70—with the topical trends of recent congresses and also review several major current concerns. Lastly, let’s look at how we must confront today’s challenges as well as those in the probable future.
The congress’s acronym SOS/70—the Science of Survival as it stood in 1970—was not chosen casually. The two largest nations, China and India, were then chronically food-short, and hunger was often very close, even when not widely present. A major topic of interest was single cell protein—now hardly mentioned. As the congress title makes clear, we did not foresee the “Green Revolution.” That revolution has now nearly run its course. As a key part of current agriculture, it has saved millions of lives, but at an unsustainable cost in terms of fertilizer and water use, nutrient runoff, and soil degradation.
Evolving Congress Topics
Comparison of the 1970 program with recent congresses reveals, as we should expect, a marked move toward more specialized topics for sessions and plenary lectures—an inevitable consequence of the increase in overall knowledge. It also shows how little we foresaw topics that now dominate our discussions. The terms “globalization,” “biotechnology,” “GMOs,”“nanotechnology,” “probiotics,” “functional foods,” and many others had not yet been coined.
Out of more than 60 topic areas covered in 1970 and in three recent congresses, only seven were common to all four congresses. Predictably, those were sensory evaluation, food safety (broadly), chemical and physical structure of foods, food science & technology education, food engineering, grains, and nutrition. By contrast, 37 topics covered at recent congresses received no mention in 1970. We must thus deal with both continuity and dramatic change, and hope that our ability to deal with change will continue to make us relevant.
Many of today’s concerns have been discussed in recent congresses. I will address four of them:
• climate change and its likely effect on food production and processing;
• water—current and future shortages, consequences for agriculture and food processing;
• obesity—what needs to be done and the role of food science in that effort;
• perception and reality, including consumer attitudes toward food risks, nutrition, and health concerns.
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In what follows, I will draw frequently on a recent IFT Scientific Review—“Feeding the World Today and Tomorrow: The Role of Food Science and Technology”—that appears in the September/October issue of Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety (see http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/crfs.2010.9.issue-5/issuetoc).
If one reads the primary scientific literature on climate change, and ignores the political posturing and the economic interests involved, there can be no serious doubt that we have been experiencing major change beginning more than a century ago, and accelerating over the past five decades. The melting of much of the Arctic ice pack, rapid retreat of major glaciers, and oceanic acidification due to higher carbon dioxide concentrations are examples. Adding to this concern is the simple fact that climate change has a great deal of momentum. Even with stringent corrective measures that are not yet in sight, greenhouse gas concentrations will continue to rise for many decades before halting and reversing.
Most of you are doubtless familiar with some of the predictions—best guesses—based on extensive computer modeling. We need to remind ourselves that a model frequently is simply a device to let you think you know more about something than you really do. But models are all we have to guide us. Of major concern to food production and processing is the redistribution of rainfall patterns, including predictions of decreased rainfall in what are now major producing areas, such as the United States’ mid-latitude Middle West. As a survivor of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, I view that with special concern. Agriculture is likely to move northward, just as is now happening with many native species. Areas in which grain is now grown but rainfall is marginal must almost certainly revert to pasture, with consequent price increases.
Most serious of all, population growth is most rapid in the developing countries, and predictions suggest that many of those areas, such as in sub-Saharan Africa, may be hardest hit by drought. Further, rising sea levels and more severe storms will affect first and hardest the coastal areas where many of the world’s poorest people now live.
We can only speculate on the consequences of these changes for food processing because our food system is a nonlinear network with multiple feedback loops. We will certainly be reducing energy consumption and shifting away from fossil fuels. IUFoST has recently published a Scientific Information Bulletin on “Life Cycle Analysis and Carbon Footprinting with respect to sustainability in the Agro-Food Sector” (see http://www.worldfoodscience.org/pdf/IUFSIB_Life_Cycle_Analysis. pdf). This may be where we are headed, but the complexity of the analysis and, I suspect, large error limits when applied to specific processes leave me doubtful.
The current interest in more protective packaging will doubtless continue to expand. Longer-range pressures for sustainability may also move us toward more completely recyclable plastics (i.e., plastics that can be recycled without loss of functionality). Another direction is toward completely biodegradable packaging.
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As grain prices rise, the price of conventionally produced meat products will almost certainly increase. That will probably result in decreased meat consumption and growth in meat alternatives—surimi, soy products, and, not necessarily “meat substitutes,” but rather other actually novel, but vaguely familiar products that will require lower energy inputs and less expensive agricultural products as starting materials. That makes the risky assumption that we will be able to make these foods as acceptable as the more expensive, less available foods they will be intended gradually to replace. If experience teaches us anything, it is that public tastes in food change very slowly.
As if the problems discussed here are not complex enough individually, they are multiply interlocked. One cannot discuss climate change without also considering water. In 1968, Garrett Hardin wrote that famous essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Its message was that wherever there is a finite resource—the “commons”—as population grows, there will be inevitable dilemmas for both the individual and the community. Will the individual place more cattle or sheep on the common, with the consequence of overgrazing and a loss to the community, but a greater share for that individual? Or will the individual forego a greater share in order that the community will not suffer? As history and recent events teach us, individual greed almost always trumps common sense and the common good. For the community, the choice is to permit individual greed or to restrain it for the common good, and to look for a larger or more productive “commons.” No resource better illustrates those dilemmas than water use.
There is wide agreement that the U.S., Canada, Australia, and a number of other major producing areas are using water at an unsustainable rate. Worse yet, many areas of high population density are already experiencing water scarcity.
Two-thirds of the water we use goes to produce food. As a teenager in Nebraska, I recall that when rural electrification first came to that area in the mid-1930s, farmers rapidly began to use it for pumping irrigation water. Water from the Ogallala aquifer was then only 30 feet down. Now it is 130 feet. We are mining that water, and that error is being repeated all over the world. We must recognize the true cost of water by considering and implementing what we must do to maintain current supplies at a sustainable level. Failure to act on the true cost of water or, worse yet, continuing the subsidization of water supplies, inevitably encourages waste. In agriculture, drip irrigation in place of flood or center-pivot irrigation and the adoption of no-till agriculture are examples of inevitable conservation.
The consequences of water shortages are as serious for food processing, and, for the first time, IUFoST began to discuss the problem at the 2008 Shanghai Congress. The beer industry, for example, is one of the largest users of water in food processing. Until recently, the U.S. brewing industry used approximately 30 billion gallons of water to produce approximately 6 billion gallons of beer, the remainder discharged as process effluent. Inevitably, but commendably, the brewing industry has begun widespread and significant efforts to reduce that usage and the reduction of effluent, in some instances so far, by more than 30%.
No one with experience in fruit and vegetable processing can be unaware of the enormous amount of water used to wash, convey, and process product. That usage must change. How? We will wash bottles with purified air rather than water, as PepsiCo is already doing. Processing plants must install their own water filtration and purification systems, now just beginning to be available, to enable repeated reuse. What are the implications of all this for product quality and safety? When will IFT’s Annual Meeting Scientific Program take up this subject? Before, I devoutly hope, it’s upon us.
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A major problem that was simply not on our horizon in 1970 was the later alarming trend toward obesity, and particularly, childhood obesity. The current statistics are sadly familiar. In the U.S., obesity among adults doubled to one-third of the population between 1980 and 2004. Today, approximately 61% of the adult population is either overweight or obese. Obesity among children and adolescents more than tripled to 19%. The good news—maybe—is that there was very little change from 2003 to 2006. Perhaps we’re beginning to do a few things right. But before we celebrate by bringing out the candy bars, we need to remember that there is still much to learn about factors that influence obesity; we are not really sure why or how this has happened, or that it is a lasting trend, and the current figures are still far too high.
The major source of the problem is clear. For all but the last 150 years—a mere 0.03% of our distinctively human lineage—most of the population needed all the food they could find or produce simply to survive, and the more calorie-dense, the better. We are stuck with that genetic background; the question is how to deal with it.
When we see pictures of obese children eating at fast-food restaurants, this is, first, a failure in parenting, and second, a symbol of misplaced outrage. We need to define why people choose these foods in excess or allow their children to do so, we need to admit that the responsibility lies with those who make those choices, and we must equip them to do better. Too many take the easy way out; some blame fast-food outlets or “empty calories”; others blame “processed food.” These are misplaced and miss the opportunity to focus on what is important. We have freedom of choice. Many people choose wisely, as their physiques show. How can we help others? As is often the case, the right answers aren’t simple and the simple answers aren’t right.
We started with nutrition labeling, and that is necessary, but insufficient for proper food choices. Education on how to use that information effectively is also necessary but insufficient. There must also be the desire to use them. Unless and until people are fully accepting of the vital importance of healthy food choices, they will choose immediate satisfaction over long-term benefit, especially when that immediate satisfaction is less expensive than more beneficial alternatives as, unfortunately, is often the case. Moreover, most physicians are not trained to provide such advice, and they don’t get paid for it if they do. That key aspect of preventive medicine now will be reimbursed, including reference to qualified dieticians, under the healthcare reform legislation recently passed in the U.S.
We have made substantial progress with comparable public campaigns against smoking and improving automobile safety. Smoking, however, is optional; eating is a biological necessity. We need even greater efforts to address this more complex and more personal problem. For many reasons, however, there will always be those beyond reach, and thus a high failure rate. Cost is a major factor in food choices and therefore a major component in our strategy to encourage better choices. Increased taxes on tobacco products have had an important role in reducing consumption. Several states are considering legislation to tax soft drinks. In wartime, the U.S. Congress has enacted excess profit taxes. In our war on obesity, should we have an excess calories tax?
In controlling food costs, the trend to a more plant-based diet, forced by climate change and water shortages, may make the path easier. That will involve more, not less, processing, and it will draw upon science and technology not yet available. Author Michael Pollan and others who wrongly criticize “processed food” as the source of the obesity problem ignore the fact that processing, because of its many efficiencies, has a major role in reducing food costs, and that will become even more important in the future.
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Food science and technology will face a major challenge in making lower-cost, nutritionally desirable and—crucially important—widely appealing foods readily available. Though I have not chewed it, the recent development at the University of Missouri of a soy product with the unique texture of chicken is an example of the many advances needed. Among the many others is a noncaloric sweetener that is not only purely sweet, but has the mouthfeel of sugar. We will need more products that have the “feel” of fat without the high caloric content, and that do not have to run the prohibitively expensive regulatory approval gauntlet that the Olestra fat substitute, for example, had to run. And the list goes on.
Risk Perception and Reality
Many existing technological advances, including irradiation and biotechnology as well as those yet to come, face misplaced opposition. This has multiple causes, but at least three are arguably paramount.
The first cause lies in the ways we perceive risk. In a seminal paper in 1969, Chauncey Starr demonstrated that we find “voluntary” risks—those over which we think we have control—to be a thousand times more acceptable than those that are “involuntary”—over which we have no control because they are imposed on us by “them.” Pesticide residues, food additives, and nontraditional genetic technology fall in the “involuntary” category. In contrast, things like mishandling of food in the home and poor food choices leading to obesity are “voluntary” risks and are far more acceptable because we feel we can control them even when we don’t.
Secondly, food additives, pesticide residues, and “processed food” have become symbols of the lack of personal involvement we often feel with our food—a lack of involvement responsible for the increased attention to home gardens, organic, buying locally, and a distaste for remote, unknown, untrusted sources.
That blends into a third factor, which is a widespread mistrust of science and technology. One cause is the increasing volume and complexity of technology that puts it even further beyond the reach of our inadequate educational efforts. More serious yet, unrelated events, such as the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, are ascribed a general significance they do not have. The media often offer assistance; as a friend who is expert in public relations says, “Alarm sells.” And our industry does its bit on its labels—“Contains no … (of whatever you might be concerned about).”
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Some years ago I proposed an intuitively reasonable relationship between the level of anxiety about some new finding and the amount of information available over time on that finding (see Figure 1). At the very moment of discovery of that finding, there is no information and therefore no anxiety—no one knows about it. As information begins to become available, anxiety (A), the ordinate, rises and reaches a peak, then, with more information, slowly declines toward C, the level of “mature anxiety.” The other terms in the function also have intuitively reasonable properties. The less well-informed consumer advocacy groups are more active prior to the peak. Media interest is greatest as the peak is approached, and falls off rapidly thereafter—it’s “yesterday’s news.” It is critically important that our organizations, and we as individual scientists, contribute to that growing body of information as early as possible while public interest is growing.
Confronting and Controlling Our Future
As food scientists, we must confront formidable challenges. In the face of major environmental changes, we must keep the cost of food as low as possible while maintaining and improving nutritional value, acceptability, and convenience. We must use water and energy far more efficiently. We must process food with less waste, while using that waste more benignly and reversing environmental degradation. In the next 40 years, we must feed another 3 billion people. And we must become far more effective in guiding healthy food choices, and a realistic view of risks and benefits.
Perhaps our greatest challenge will be to convince our fellow citizens that this will require more and better science and technology, not less. The solution to automobile pollution is not to return to the horse. How we deal with these trends and challenges will determine our future. We have much to do.
Richard L. Hall, Ph.D., IFT President 1971-72 and IFT Fellow, is retired and former Vice President of Science and Technology, McCormick and Co., Inc. ([email protected]).