25 July 2013

Sustainability in the Food Industry

One of the presentations at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Conference was about sustainability in the food industry. I care a lot about sustainability (specifically waste management and reduction), and it has occurred to me that there are careers in this area in food. I think that one of my college application essays said something about that, actually, back when I felt more optimisitc and full of potential.
Ah, here we go:
The chance to learn and research about crop production in relation to both the local biological impacts and domestic and foreign economical aspects would provide me with deep and broad insight. I would have the opportunity to change an agricultural or business practice, although I already frequently boycott or contact companies such as [company name redacted] to recommend that they use less processing in products. As a potential biotechnologist with a detailed understanding of the economy, I aim to promote fresh, varied food that is healthy, beneficial for the environment, and economically viable for efficient production and storage.
Well, that bombastic essay resulted in my rejection to the LSM program, which in retrospect, is a relief. In any case, at the Expo, I went around a bunch of booths asking about their sustainability initiatives, or what people in that area do (i.e. I need a job). Sure, product development is engaging and interesting too, but I would feel more useful to the world by researching or developing more sustainable packaging or food production methods. So let's swivel back to the sustainability presentation.

I got there a bit early and sat in the second row because the first row was occupied by a woman and her daughter. I watched them as they chatted. Soon, it occurred to me that the woman was the one who was giving the speech, and later, it hit me that she was actually extremely important. By this time, I had lost my chance to introduce myself to her, and after her presentation, she and her coworkers left. On the bright side, I had a neat conversation with her 11 or 12 year-old daughter.

So, rule number 1: If the person doesn't look busy, introduce yourself. You could be speaking with the Senior VP of Starbucks. And indeed I could've been.

Dr. Mary Wagner gave an interesting but broad presentation about coffee-growing sustainability efforts by Starbucks. I would've liked to have a chat with her afterwards because I had a lot of questions.

She started off by distinguishing between the Arabica and Robusta beans. Starbucks uses only Arabica beans. My notes say something about the coffee cherries being handpicked, and the only part of the cherry that is kept is the coffee bean. I wanted to ask whether there are efforts to develop applications of coffee pulp and skin (because in the dairy industry, they used to discard whey until they realized that protein powders were an enormous market). This would be the kind of research I'd like to do and would find fulfilling (perhaps). 

The coffee is grown on hilly land +/- 20 degrees from the equator. Coffee is susceptible to this fungus that causes "coffee rust", a disease that has something to do with lack of water. Of course, water (over)usage is a huge problem in the world. There are actually two kinds of processing, dry and wet, and a goal is to make dry-processed coffee taste like the wet-processed version and therefore minimize water usage.

I wonder, do they compost the coffee cherry skins and pulp? Do they use fertilizers? What happens when the nutrients in the soil are gone? Move to a higher patch of land? Doesn't this immensely increase transportation costs?
Apparently, a factor with which Starbucks is currently toying is the growth of coffee plants at higher altitudes. They're trying to figure out how this would affect taste, water usage, growth conditions, etc.

After this flurry of overview, there was time for three questions, so I asked whether the hills from which Starbucks obtains their coffee uses any sort of crop rotation. Apparently not. I also wanted to ask whether the topsoil is affected by coffee planting, and whether there is erosion occurring because of the lack of deep-rooted trees. I mean, I had plenty of questions...enough for a coffee chat. Looks like I'm finally learning about the importance of networking and grown-up/professional, extroverted things like that.

The second presentation was by Dr. Ruben Morawicki, and the idea that stuck with me was this: "A practice can't be "more" or "less" sustainable. It's either sustainable or not." Yet, I think he also meant that there are more "sustainable" processes than others (e.g. superflous water consumption does occur).
There was this spider graph (like this) which is used to compare products based on their energy usages/other metrics. I had never heard of spider graphs before, and I am instantly fond of, and will use, this method for decision making (yes, even for trivial things such as what to have for luncheon).

The third presentation, by Dr. Jason Hill, discussed biofuels. The take-away message was that people oversimplify everything. When someone asks what's "better" for the environment, we need to define "better". Better for the company (more profits, but also less innovation and a shadier public image)?  Better for the consumer (more convenient, but ridiculously expensive, OR, less convenient but cheaper)? Better for the earth (but more difficult to make this practice work on a large scale, therefore contributing no net "betterment")? 
It makes me wonder, and then feel rather helpless.

Citation: Wagner, M, Morawicki, R, Hill, J. Research Needs for a Sustainable Food System. Institute of Food Technologists Conference and Expo 2013. S503 McCormick Place. July 15 2013.

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