Entire food supply chain called on to tackle issue of food security

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 22nd January 2009

Science and engineering are vital to securing a sustainable food supply at a time when the world is threatened by climate change, global population growth and limited natural resources, the Royal Society of Chemistry advised at a House of Commons event in the UK overnight.

Embracing new technologies, based on good science, across the entire food supply chain was the centre piece of a major report on food sustainability launched on 21 January when the Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP gave a keynote address, acknowledging the value of science in UK food policy. It covers primary agriculture, food processing and manufacture, distribution and retail, consumer issues, supply-chain waste and issues surrounding education and skills for the food industry.

The report, ‘The vital ingredient: Chemical science and engineering for sustainable food’, was prepared by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) and the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE). At a basic level, food security depends on securing agricultural production of crops. However, sustainability throughout the entire food supply chain is necessary to truly achieve food security. The RSC-IChemE report claims that science and engineering underpin many of the technologies that must be developed to secure food supplies in the UK.

It also calls for improved scientific literacy amongst policy makers and says supermarkets must make greater efforts to champion sustainability.

Approximately one quarter of all food bought by consumers is thrown away each year in the UK. Science and engineering should be utilised to reduce the phenomenal amount of food wasted every year. For example, functional ‘intelligent’ packaging could be used to indicate whether or not food spoilage had occurred.

Other areas where chemical science and engineering could make a positive contribution across the supply chain include pest control, veterinary medicines for livestock, improving refrigeration and food storage technology, and enhancing nutritional content of food, according to the research.

A global food crisis was firmly on the agenda last year as food commodity prices rose to unprecedented levels, placing severe pressure on many in the supply chain from producer to consumer. Predicted increases in the world’s population (set to reach 9 billion by 2050), economic growth in emerging economies such as China and India, and limited resources (in particular energy and water) are causing food policy to rise swiftly up the political agenda.

“Food security is a complex issue; we must recognise the relationship between climate change and all the issues involved in food production, processing, manufacturing, distribution, consumption and waste,” Dr Farrah Bhatti, Royal Society of Chemistry Biosciences Manager, said overnight. “It is high time we paid more attention to the interconnection of water and food. In particular we need to understand that food security in the years ahead is crucially going to depend on water availability.”

“Energy remains another major factor. Only by embracing the wealth of technologies provided by science and engineering will we be able to secure our energy, water and food supplies in the years to come,” he added. “The challenges we face require technical solutions. These solutions will only be realised by highly skilled people working together in the food industry, academia, and Government.”

Professor Peter Lillford CBE, Chairman of the Working Party that produced the report, says that the poorest nations and net importers will be among the first hit. “The countries that are less technologically advanced and those that rely most heavily on food imports will be the first to suffer. It will be survival of the fittest,” he advised. “Last year, we saw riots in Bangladesh, Cameroon, Senegal and Morocco because of food shortages. We experienced ripples of change in the UK too where many food prices rose. It’s all about the availability of food as a commodity on a global scale.”

“In the developed world, because food is relatively cheap, we waste it. That is no longer morally or economically acceptable and we’ll also rely on the chemical sciences to implement technology to reduce this waste, alongside the need for adjustments in consumer behaviour. There is no way out of this unless we make changes,” Professor Lillford warned.

To view the full report please visit: www.rsc.org/ScienceAndTechnology/Policy/Documents/thevitalingredient.asp