In a world rife with pollution and overconsumption of fossil fuels, sustainability is an increasingly important topic in a variety of sectors, not the least of which is food science and agriculture. In his new book Handbook of Sustainability for the Food Sciences, Rubén O. Morawicki presents the concept of sustainability as it applies to the food supply chain “from farm to fork,” with a special emphasis on processing. In the following interview, Dr. Morawicki discusses how we damage the environment at various steps along the food supply chain, how we might fix these harmful processes, and how varied the definition of sustainability can be.
- You started out studying Chemical Engineering and ultimately earned a Ph.D. in Food Science. Can you tell us a bit about what guided you through your academic journey?In many aspects, Chemical Engineering is a related field to Food Science. What is called Food Engineering is basically chemical engineering principles applied to food products and processes.My interest in Food Science started when I was a senior majoring in Chemical Engineering. At that time, I met a professor who led a group working in modeling heat and mass transfer during the drying of food products, and I got interested in the topic. After finishing my degree, I joined this group and worked for six years, which defined my interest in food science even more.
What inspired you to become an advocate of environmental issues?
Since a young age, I understood that natural resources are limited and that the exploitation model we use will lead eventually to their exhaustion. I also understood that ecosystems provide an invaluable service to us and that it is important to preserve them.Later on, I got interested in the relationship of energy and society, especially on the high dependence of energy to produce food.
Having worked as a research scientist at Tyson Foods and as an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, what did you find to be the most striking differences between working in industry and academia?
In industry, at least in my own experience, research is more applied. The objective in general is to develop new products, to improve existing ones, or to improve processes; therefore your research topics are dictated more or less by the market or by the marketing department.In academia, within your area of expertise, you can decide the research you want to pursue if you can find the resources to finance the project.
What do you consider some of the most innovative or unusual food processing techniques that promote sustainability?
Any technology that consumes less energy and water, avoids the use of harsh chemicals, and minimizes the use of non-renewable resources decreases the emission of pollutants and lessens the environmental impact of food processing. Several technologies having one or more of these attributes are currently in use, such as supercritical carbon dioxide to conduct extractions instead of using petroleum based solvents (see Dense Phase Carbon Dioxide by Balaban and Ferrention), membrane separation and/or concentration as an alternative to evaporation, carbon dioxide as refrigerant, and high pressure pasteurization (see Handbook of Food Process Design by Ahmed and Rahaman). Other technologies still considered “emerging” show great potential to decrease the environmental impact of processing.
What are some food processing technologies that are especially damaging to the environment?
Processing is an important step that bridges primary food production with the consumer to deliver nutritious and safe food products; and all processing techniques are important. I wouldn’t say that food processing technologies are “damaging to the environment,” but some processes have higher environmental impact than others because of their higher use of energy or water; others emit substances such as stratospheric ozone-depleting gases, as from some refrigeration equipment. Also, processing plants that do not handle their effluents appropriately can create environmental disasters.Every food processing technique has specific impacts. For instance, from the energy consumption point of view, drying uses more energy than freezing, and freezing more than canning. However, dried foods are stored at room temperature while frozen products need refrigerated transportation, distribution, and storage; so all the impacts are relative.
While you were researching this book, did you discover anything that surprised you?
Probably the most striking thing was the wide range of definitions of sustainability. It seems the definition of sustainability is tailored to needs and convenience. Sustainability is about maintaining a steady output in the long run. For instance, to remain sustainable a food company needs to turn profits. Likewise, it needs energy and resources to maintain its production. If energy and resources start to decline, the company will no longer have enough energy and materials to maintain a steady production.
What three main concepts or themes would you like readers of your book to come away with?
The message is that our food supply chain is vulnerable due to its dependence on three components: fossil fuels, non-renewable or slow- renewable water resources, and non-renewable materials.Fossil fuels are used to produce nitrogen fertilizer, to run machinery and transport raw materials; to process food; to transport and distribute food; to prepare food at home; and to dispose of waste.The most fertile soils are generally located in areas with low rainfall, and the only way to make these lands productive is by irrigation with surface water. More often, however water is taken from subterranean aquifers, which are non-rechargeable or too slow to recharge. Sooner or later these aquifers are going to be exhausted.We use all kinds of petroleum-based materials and minerals mined from concentrated deposits to produce food. All materials and minerals are important, but some of them—like phosphorous—are vital for food production, have no substitutes, and are in limited deposits around the world. Once gone, these materials will be gone for good.