By AnnMarie Cornejo
The world is growing. By most estimates, the planet’s population will reach more than 9 billion by 2050. As that growth accelerates, the debate over how to feed a growing world population — with fewer natural resources available — is at the forefront of discussion both among policymakers and academics.
The conundrum of food scarcity is further compounded by a paradoxical fact: in the United States alone, as much as 40 percent of food that is produced for consumption is wasted.
The situation is far from simple. But for many, the two issues are connected by a set of common possible solutions.
Faculty researchers across Cal Poly are seeking interdisciplinary solutions to both sides of the problem – the twin needs to producing more food, while reducing the amount that is wasted and conserving precious resources.
“The solution to future food shortages cannot rely on one sector,” said Peter Livingston, head of the Cal Poly’s BioResource and Agricultural Engineering Department.
Livingston is working alongside his peers to produce food in unchartered ways. One of those possible solutions includes growing produce in highly salinated water by shielding the plants’ roots from the harmful effects of salt with microscopic, oxygen-infused bubbles.
If they succeed, certain crops, such as lettuce, could be grown in parts of the world such as the Arabian Gulf, where scarcity of fresh water prevents sustainable food production.
“I don’t believe that even technology and food waste reduction together can solve future food shortages,” said Livingston. “We need to start looking at ways to increase production areas. I think water will be the scarcity that we’ll need to work around. In fact, in the future we will be measuring the yield of agricultural products in pounds per gallon instead of pounds per acre.”
Solutions in Sustainability
The exhaustion of natural resources must also be addressed by sustainable methods of production and the ensuing consumption of food commodities.
“By reducing food and agricultural loss, we will save resources, such as water and energy, that are used to produce food that ends up wasted,” said Stephanie Jung, a professor in the Food Science and Nutrition Department.
Jung recently received a nearly $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to focus on the conversion of agricultural and food waste challenges into opportunities.
The funding will be used over a four-year period to enroll six students in Cal Poly’s master’s in agriculture program with a specialization in food science. The students’ coursework will focus on global issues related to agricultural and food waste.
The cross-disciplinary program will involve 11 faculty members from across the university, including food science, industrial packaging, animal science and engineering.
“It’s outrageous that 12.7 percent of U.S. households were food insecure in 2015,” said Jung. “By making sure that agricultural and food products that are still suitable for consumption are accessible to people in need, we can help address that issue.”
Food scientists will play a critical role in reducing future waste, said Jung. “It is extremely important that students, at all levels, have a better understanding of the issues at stake,” she said. “They often are aware of the problems but need to have a better understanding of the possible solutions and the parameters to consider in determining what solutions might be useful and economically, socially and environmentally sustainable.”
Making food labeling more understandable to consumers, developing food products which use ingredients that might come from food and agricultural waste, and finding new applications for waste streams to convert them into valued products instead of being sent to landfill are just a few of the examples she envisions future graduates addressing.
“The food industry can no longer afford not to integrate food waste into their strategic vision for a sustainable development,” said Jung. “Understanding how to process food in a sustainable way by minimizing consumption of water and energy is critically important.”
Appifying the Waste Stream
To transform the food industry, plausible and profitable solutions must be developed.
Earlier this year Cal Poly economics Professor Stephen Hamilton and a team of researchers received a nearly $500,000 grant from the USDA to study new solutions to the problem of food waste.
Hamilton agrees that the solution must encompass all sectors of the industry. “Food waste is a particularly interesting topic for research, because it relates to many different things, including global hunger, environmental sustainability, and farm financial security,” he said.
Hamilton and his team will investigate the viability of peer-to-peer distribution models to share, sell or exchange food to reduce the amount of food disposed in landfills as waste.
“The basic idea is to use emerging cell phone application technology to create new markets for food, much like Uber and AirBnB,” said Hamilton. “An important difference is that cell phone apps are generally used to share durable goods, whereas food is perishable, so this will be a challenge.”
Established companies, such as Crop Mobster and Imperfect Produce, that plan to enter the emerging market of repurposing and monetizing food that would be otherwise wasted, have agreed to share collected data with Hamilton for further research.
The premise is a simple one. “Essentially, the research team will collect data from companies that seek to make matches on Craigslist-type sites where farmers and retailers can post available food items that they do not need, and others can buy them,” he said. “Our goal is to determine how prices emerge in these markets,” said Hamilton.
However, finding successful platforms to reduce food waste is only a part of the solution. Preparing for the future – given a sustainable solution to reducing waste is found – is also needed, he said.
“More food and reduced farm waste together can help meet growing population demands, but we aren’t tackle hunger directly,” said Hamilton. “Other programs for food waste, such as consumer donation programs to food banks, are also needed.”
Again, researchers like Peter Livingston reiterates that the solutions to reducing both global hunger and global food waste will necessarily be complex. “Is any one new process critical to feeding nine billion people in 33 years?” he said. “The answer is no.”
But there is hope—and it rests in the hands of future college graduates.
“It is extremely important that students, at all levels, have a better understanding of the issues at stake,” said Jung. “Solutions exist and resources are available, and hopefully they will be the ones to discover which of those solutions will work.”