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Stephen Dombroski, QAD
FST Soapbox

8 Reasons Sustainability is Critical in Food and Beverage Manufacturing

By Stephen Dombroski
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Stephen Dombroski, QAD

Sustainability pushes a lot of our hot buttons—it’s a political issue, an economic concern, and a social conversation. Some people even see it as a moral matter. Sometimes it’s on the back burner, but then it blazes back into the headlines. Sustainability is, arguably, an industry unto itself, since the economic impact on companies trying to adhere to government guidelines or react to consumer preferences can be in the billions of dollars across a wide range of markets. Sustainability demands are hitting a variety of industries, not just food and beverage. For example, the move from the internal combustion engine to the electric vehicle can be called a “sustainability” issue.

The Eight Elements of Sustainability
1. Consumer preferences
2. Climate change
3. Food insecurity
4. Food waste
5. New foods
6. Packaging
7. Regenerative agriculture
8. Transportation and regulatory restrictions
In light of the many disruptors in the food and beverage industry and most recently, due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, sustainability is now front-page news. This article will discuss eight reasons why sustainability is now one of the defining issues in food and beverage manufacturing. Future articles in this series will examine each issue in more detail.

Consumer Preferences

The green consumer wants brands to embrace purpose and sustainability, and they want their purchases to contribute to the greater good, or at least, do no harm. The demand started among millennials and Gen Zers, but with the influence of social media, it’s expanded to all demographics.

The industry has been forced to introduce healthier products, with more ethically-sourced ingredients and more transparent supply chains. Younger consumers, especially, often trace a brand’s sustainability record with QR codes or smart labels. They want to know from where their food originates.

These consumer actions and attitudes are now influencing the development of new food items and packaging designs as manufacturers realize consumers are taking notice.

Climate Change

Warming is causing the earth’s poles, permafrost and glaciers to melt and the oceans to rise. Average sea levels have swelled more than eight inches since 1880, with about three of those inches gained in the last 25 years. Here’s the impact on sustainability—when sea levels rise and warm, flooding can occur, causing coastal seawater contamination and erosion of valuable farmland. Higher air temperatures may also rule out the cultivation of some valuable crops (gasp, chocolate!).

Hotter temperatures can also cause insect body temperatures to rise; they need to eat more to survive and may live through the winter instead of dying off. A larger, more active insect population could threaten crops. And changes to water, soil and temperature could affect the complex ecosystems of the world’s farms, causing plant stress and increasing susceptibility to disease. The food manufacturing and farming industries are starting to investigate new ways of growing food in environments that can protect crops from these changes.

Food Insecurity

Food demand is expected to increase anywhere from 59% to 98% by 2050. Populations are growing and due to rising incomes, demand is ramping up for meat and other high-grade proteins. At the same time, climate change is putting pressure on natural and human resources, making it challenging to produce enough food to meet the world’s needs.

The world agrees that governments, manufacturers and consumers have a social responsibility for to do their part to combat world hunger. Consumers are becoming more aware of food security and the threat that climate change poses. People are attempting to eat sustainably with meals designed to have a lower environmental impact, and incorporating an awareness of plate portions and food waste.

World health organizations are also stepping up. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is the food-assistance branch of the United Nations and the world’s largest humanitarian organization, addressing hunger and promoting food security. The WFP works to help lift people out of hunger who cannot produce or obtain enough food for themselves, providing food assistance to an average of 91.4 million people in 83 countries each year. Food brands worldwide are offering support through donation programs, new product development to provide more nutrition with less and new sources of food.

Food Waste

Around one-third of the total food the world produces—around 1.3 billion tons—is wasted. It’s more than just the direct loss; food waste contributes heavily to climate change, making up around eight percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Food manufacturers are making significant efforts to reduce their food waste footprint. Is it possible to anticipate and plan for potential glitches in frozen food processing? Sustainable brands make contingency plans in advance so that food can be stored safely while a broken line is fixed, rather than let it go to waste. What should be done with raw materials left over after processing? Perhaps there are other creative uses for it—vegetable waste, for example, has been used for fertilizer.

Human behavior is a main contributor to climate change and the motivator for new sustainable practices. Over time, community attitudes can change habits, like encouraging commitments to composting or recycling. In certain communities, grocery stores and restaurants contribute leftover food to charities. Portion control at restaurants and in the home can make us healthier and also help to reduce food waste.

New Foods

In response to changing food preferences and the demand by consumers for healthier options, food and beverage companies have the opportunity to develop new foods and build a reputation for sustainability.

Brands have been working on protein alternatives, but one can argue that plant-based protein went mainstream when news broke in 2019 that both McDonald’s and Burger King were testing plant-based burgers. And with veganism and vegetarianism growing, tofu, seeds, nuts and beans are also showing up in kitchens more frequently, as are products made from them.

Did it surprise you the first time you heard about cauliflower pizza crust? Food manufacturers have been actively introducing new products like this, substituting vegetables for carbohydrate-rich grains. Product manufacturers have brought us new product options like zoodles made from squash as a substitute for spaghetti. Utilizing products differently is a sustainable tactic. In addition, it opens up new markets, expands the value chain and increases business opportunities for food and beverage manufacturers.

Packaging

Sustainability also involves sustainable or “eco-friendly” packaging. Packaging with a reduced environmental impact is becoming a consumer priority.

What is sustainable packaging? It can mean packaging made with 100% recycled or raw materials, packaging with a minimized carbon footprint due to a streamlined production process or supply chain, or packaging that is recycled or reused. There is also biodegradable packaging like containers made from cornstarch being used for takeout meals.

To help fight food waste, intelligent packaging for food can use indicators or sensors to monitor factors outside the packaging like temperature and humidity, or internal factors like freshness. Smart labels can tell an even more complete story about what sustainable practices have been used in packaging manufacturing or along the supply chain via a QR code or webpage.

Optimizing product density for transport is another sustainability technique. Minimizing packaging can reduce shipping weight and packaging waste to minimize an organization’s carbon footprint. An added benefit is that manufacturers can deliver more in less time thus improving customer service and keeping the supply chain moving.

Regenerative Agriculture

Sustainability may call for practices that maintain soil health, but regenerative agriculture goes further; it looks to reverse climate change. Regenerative techniques promote the need to restore soil health, rebalance water and carbon cycles, create new topsoil and grow food in a regenerative way—so nature has the boost it needs to sustain improvement. If the quantity of carbon in farm soils increases 0.4% each year, says the European “4 Per 1000” initiative, it could offset the 4.3 billion tons of CO2 emissions that humans pump into the atmosphere annually.

The regenerative food system market has drawn investors, wedding the benefits to both water and soil to economic incentives. Unhealthy soil requires more water to produce the same amount of food. Healthy soil resulting from regenerative agricultural practices holds more water and therefore requires less water to be added. Underground and hydroponic versions of regenerative agriculture are also emerging.

Transportation and Regulatory Restrictions

Sustainability is also dependent on transportation and the supply chain. Governments are evaluating current practices and implementing changes that can positively affect climate change.

The food and beverage industry is actively embracing other changes that affect sustainability. Electric trucks fit well with their distribution hub model, with clean, quiet, short run deliveries. Fuel usage during transportation is being considered from every angle. Local and regional food systems, where farmers and processors sell and distribute their food to consumers within a given area, use less fossil fuel for transportation because the distance from farm to consumer is shorter, and therefore reduce CO2 emissions.

These eight areas are the defining issues facing food and beverage manufacturers today in sustainability. Sustainability impacts all of us, everywhere, and food and beverage manufacturing is right in the middle of it. What this means to the manufacturing world is that they must prepare their processes, systems, infrastructure and mindset to evolve their business in tune to the evolving issue of sustainability.

Salim Al Babili, Ph.D., KAUST
Food Genomics

To Boost Crop Resilience, We Need to Read Our Plants’ Genetic Codes

By Salim Al Babili, Ph.D.
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Salim Al Babili, Ph.D., KAUST

In just 30 years, worldwide food production will need to nearly double to feed the projected population of 9 billion people. Challenges to achieving food security for the future include increasing pressures of global warming and shifting climatic belts, a lack of viable agricultural land, and the substantial burdens on freshwater resources. With the United Nations reporting nearly one billion people facing food insecurity today, our work must begin now.

A key research area to meet this crisis is in developing crops resilient enough to grow in a depleting environment. That’s why we need to search for ways to improve crop resilience, boost plant stress resistance and combat emerging diseases. Researchers around the world, including many of my colleagues at Saudi Arabia-based King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), are exploring latest genome editing technologies to develop enough nutritious, high-quality food to feed the world’s growing population.1

Where We’ve Been, and Where We Need to Go

Farmers have been genetically selecting crop plants for thousands of years, choosing superior-looking plants (based on their appearance or phenotype) for breeding. From the early 20th century, following breakthroughs in understanding of genetic inheritance, plant breeders have deliberately cross-bred crop cultivars to make improvements. In fact, it was only a few decades ago that Dr. Norman Borlaug’s development of dwarf wheat saved a billion lives from starvation.

However, this phenotypic selection is time-consuming and often expensive—obstacles that today’s global environment and economy don’t have the luxury of withstanding.

Because phenotypic selection relies on traits that are already present within the crop’s genome, it misses the opportunity to introduce resilient features that may not be native to the plant. Features like salt tolerance for saltwater irrigation or disease resistance to protect against infections could yield far larger harvests to feed more people. This is why we need to explore genome editing methods like CRISPR, made popular in fighting human diseases, to understand its uses for agriculture.

What Our Research Shows

We can break down these issues into the specific challenges crops face. For instance, salt stress can have a huge impact on plant performance, ultimately affecting overall crop yields. An excess of salt can impede water uptake, reduce nutrient absorption and result in cellular imbalances in plant tissues. Plants have a systemic response to salt stress ranging from sensing and signaling to metabolic regulation. However, these responses differ widely within and between species, and so pinpointing associated genes and alleles is incredibly complex.2

Researchers must also disentangle other factors influencing genetic traits, such as local climate and different cultivation practices.

Genome-wide association studies, commonly used to scan genomes for genetic variants associated with specific traits, will help to determine the genes and mutations responsible for individual plant responses.3 Additionally, technology like drone-mounted cameras could capture and scan large areas of plants to measure their characteristics, reducing the time that manual phenotyping requires. All of these steps can help us systematically increase crops’ resilience to salt.

Real-world Examples

“Quinoa was the staple ‘Mother Grain’ that fueled the ancient Andean civilizations, but the crop was marginalized when the Spanish arrived in South America and has only recently been revived as a new crop of global interest,” says Mark Tester, a professor of plant science at KAUST and a colleague of mine at the Center for Desert Agriculture (CDA). “This means quinoa has never been fully domesticated or bred to its full potential even though it provides a more balanced source of nutrients for humans than cereals.”

In order to further understand how quinoa grows, matures and produces seeds, the KAUST team combined several methods, including cutting-edge sequencing technologies and genetic mapping, to piece together full chromosomes of C. quinoa. The resulting genome is the highest-quality quinoa sequence to date, and it is producing information about the plant’s traits and growth mechanisms.4,5

The accumulation of certain compounds in quinoa produces naturally bitter-tasting seeds. By pinpointing and inhibiting the genes that control the production of these compounds, we could produce a sweeter and more desirable crop to feed the world.

And so, complexity of science in food security increases when we consider that different threats affect different parts of the world. Another example is Striga, a parasitic purple witchweed, which threatens food security across sub-Saharan Africa due to its invasive spread. Scientists, including my team, are focused on expanding methods to protect the production of pearl millet, an essential food crop in Africa and India, through hormone-based strategies for cleansing soils infested with Striga.6

Other scientists with noteworthy work in the area of crop resilience include that of KAUST researchers Simon Krattinger, Rod Wing, Ikram Blilou and Heribert Hirt; with work spanning from leaf rust resistance in barley to global date fruit production.

Looking Ahead

Magdy Mahfouz, an associate professor of bioengineering at KAUST and another CDA colleague, is looking to accelerate and expand the scope of next-generation plant genome engineering, with a specific focus on crops and plant responses to abiotic stresses. His team recently developed a CRISPR platform that allows them to efficiently engineer traits of agricultural value across diverse crop species. Their primary goal is to breed crops that perform well under climate-related stresses.

“We also want to unlock the potential of wild plants, and we are working on CRISPR-guided domestication of wild plants that are tolerant of hostile environments, including arid regions and saline soils,” says Mahfouz.

As climate change and population growth drastically alters our approach to farming, no singular tool may meet the urgent need of feeding the world on its own. By employing a variety of scientific and agricultural approaches, we can make our crops more resilient, their cultivation more efficient, and their yield more plentiful for stomachs in need worldwide. Just as technology guided Dr. Bourlag to feed an entire population, technology will be the key to a food secure 21st century.

References

  1. Zaidi, SS. et al. (2019). New plant breeding technologies for food security. Science. 363:1390-91.
  2. Morton, M. et al. (2018). Salt stress under the scalpel – dissecting the genetics of salt tolerance. Plant J. 2018;97:148-63.
  3. Al-Tamimi, N. et al. (2016). Salinity tolerance loci revealed in rice using high-throughput non-invasive phenotyping. Nature Communicat. 7:13342.
  4. Jarvis, D.E., et.al. (2017). The genome of Chenopodium quinoa. Nature. 542:307-12.
  5. Saade. S., et. al. (2016). Yield-related salinity tolerance traits identified in a nested association mapping (NAM) population of wild barley. Sci Reports. 6:32586.
  6. Kountche, B.A., et.al. (2019). Suicidal germination as a control strategy for Striga hermonthica (Benth.) in smallholder farms of sub‐Saharan Africa. Plants, People, Planet. 1: 107– 118. https://doi.org/10.1002/ppp3.32