The term sustainability is widely used to describe the principle of ensuring food or techniques for producing foods that are secure, stable, and safe for the environment for years to come. With public calls for corporate accountability on the rise, it has become clear that the consumer’s ideas of what constitutes sustainability differ greatly from those of food scientists and other food industry professionals. The main reason for these divergent perspectives is that consumers have very limited knowledge and understanding of food science and the ways it affects and improves the foods they eat. Many have no real concept of what food science is and how it impacts the safe and nutritious foods they purchase and consume daily.
For example, as a result of misinformed and misconstrued messaging from advocacy groups, advertisers, and friends and relatives, consumers sometimes give more credence to non-authoritative sources. As a consequence, many consumers believe that food science is generally counterintuitive to sustainable food production, or they tend to focus unilaterally on agricultural practices (e.g., organic vs conventional). This has led to the widespread misconception among consumers that organic food practices are 100% sustainable as well as 100% pesticide-free.
As food scientists, we know that these notions are inaccurate. Sustainability is a complex concept that has many tentacles throughout the whole food-chain spectrum. Food scientists and food manufacturers regularly consider sustainability as it pertains to crop generation, soil quality, food processing, food packaging, shelf life, water management, and even production plant/building design. Today’s food scientists are much better informed and more conscious of the effect of all aspects of food production from seed to final product.
Food science has made the food supply far more sustainable and safe today than it was at the beginning of the 20th century. The world’s population has increased exponentially since then, yet the same foods and food sources are largely still in existence and safe to consume. What makes this possible are advances in food science and technology that have prevented foods from being scarce or spoiling quickly, increased crop yields and plant varieties, and enhanced the nutritive values of foods. The IFT white paper “Feeding the World Today and Tomorrow: The Importance of Food Science and Technology” points out that drying, canning, chemical preservation, refrigeration, and nutrient fortification were significant advances in the 19th and 20th centuries.
However, there is still more that food science and technology can do. Every year, more than 30% of the global food supply is never consumed because the food spoils, is damaged during processing, or undergoes natural deterioration. And even though consumers seem resistant to conventional and nonconventional (e.g., irradiation) methods of processing and preservation, consumers and food professionals can both agree that millions of pounds of uneaten food are a sizable waste. The exploration of novel methods for producing, harvesting, processing, distributing, and storing food is imperative.
As it pertains to the food industry, sustainability extends beyond strategies to produce, process, and preserve food; it also involves sustainable business practices, such as water reclamation, package recycling, and reduced carbon emissions. Many food companies have embraced kinder and gentler ways of conducting business by reducing the impact their operations have on the environment. One of this month’s feature articles in Food Technology covers sustainability efforts dating back to the 1930s when some companies practiced crop rotation and used recycled paperboard for packaging.
Sessions within the Sustainability Track at the 2012 Annual Meeting & Food Expo explored sustainable ways of engaging in the business of food. During the session “How Can New Technologies Improve the Efficiency of Water, Energy, and Raw Material Use in the Food Industry?” speakers discussed the use of innovative processing techniques to reduce wastewater. The session “Life Cycle Assessment: Farm to Table” highlighted ways in which companies can reduce carbon footprints by using life-cycle assessments. And the session “Consumers’ Approach to Sustainability” spelled out consumer expectations for sustainability and how companies can apply them to their business operations.
There are many ways in which food scientists and other food professionals have responded to the increasing need for sustainable food production and distribution. Ultimately, the primary goal is to produce an abundance of safe and nutritious food with minimal waste (i.e., food, water, and packaging) at a reduced expenditure of energy. Perhaps a close secondary goal is to achieve the primary goal in ways that do not adversely impact global ecosystems and are appealing to the majority of consumers.
Roger Clemens, Dr.P.H.,
IFT President, 2011–2012
Chief Scientific Officer, Horn Company, La Mirada, Calif.