Agents of Transformation: Future Food Production Systems
| O.P. Singh, MD, Huvepharma SEA, Pune - 04 Nov 2020

By O.PSingh, MD, Huvepharma SEA, Pune

There is newer and newer evidence before us pointing at how use of enzymes has the potential to not only transform food production but also contribute to environmental sustainability, making it a viable alternative.

I come from a generation where things are bought after being ‘seen’ and ‘quality checked’. Food is no exception. Firstly because it feeds the whole family so it has to be fresh and safe for consumption and secondly because one can haggle for prices with the green grocer. It was a straight forward, simple way of life, until COVID 19 happened.

When the first lockdown was announced we didn’t know how to prepare ourselves. What to stock, how much to stock? What essential supplies to expect, what to not? Consequently, everything flew off the shelves, creating shortages.

Primarily vegetarian consumers were in a fix as to where to source their greens from! For non vegetarians there were considerable options in terms of processed and packaged meats. Hitherto a millennial Z preference came to the rescue of meat lovers, but not without its own set of challenges.

Why buy frozen meat when fresh was available? But what’s to be done when you have no access to fresh meat? As super markets were also a no-go zone, online purchase was the onlyoption. As I had never bought meat online, I had to get over my initial misgivings and made a mental check list of what claims to look for while buying the food.

I was pleasantly surprised at the number of options available right from freshly frozen meats to processed and frozen for a long shelf life. Made me wonder what it was that was going in to make these foods last longer?

If packaged & processed food is going to be the future, what are we doing today to make it a sustainable effort? What scalable science or technology do we need to employ? What are the current innovations? What work is happening in this area? Is the food thus manufactured safe, hygienic, nutritious?What is its carbon footprint?

Who had thought that we would have to considerably revamp our food production systems? Perhaps there never would have been a need if we weren’t looking to feed 10 billion by 2050, if the climate change wouldn’t have been so taxing and if the greenhouse emissions of our current food and agricultural systems were not so high! Like they say- necessity is the mother of all invention.

The food system as we know it, is at a “critical juncture,” affected by climate change, food waste, food insecurity and chronic disease. With respect to food waste, about 30% of food produced globally is discarded. Regarding food insecurity, 821 mn people globally are chronically hungry, and poor diet is the number 1 risk factor for mortality worldover.

Clearly, the need for re evaluating and/or creating parallel/ innovative food systems that support future demand for food and address the above challenges is imminent.

Biotechnology has had a long history of use in food production and processing. The excitement and enthusiasm for biotechnology so characteristic of the pharmaceutical and medical areas is at an all time high, so much so that it will likely establish food industry as the largest commercial arena for biotechnology.

This is because benefits of biotechnology are enormous, despite the arguments against it. It can be used to produce new products with desirable characteristics such as disease & drought-resistant plants, leaner meat, enhanced flavour and nutrition secure, safe  food. 

New applications of biotechnology in food-related areas: enzymes,fermentation, agricultural raw materials (e.g., crop plants, meat, poultry, fish) with improved functionality have the potential to transform our food & agricultural production system.

Enzymes are as green as they come. For centuries, humans have relied on enzymatic processes in food preparation.Today, theyhave found widespread application in food industry due to their specificity, efficacy at milder reaction conditions, safety, acceptability, and ease of control. Use of enzymes reduces the need to use additives.

Enzymes have also come to play an important role in soil health & management helping sustain agricultural productivity, thus optimizing natural resources and laying the foundation for regenerative agriculture.“Cultured” or fermented foods also contribute to significantly improve nutritional value of the food.

Its quite simple actually, how principles inspired by nature can be translated to food processing to produce nutritious and tasty food. Food using enzymes or fermentation can be mass produced , and could possibly be more environmentally friendly , with a lower energy footprint compared with traditional processes.

As these processes produce safe and nutrient rich food, they are very attractive to me as a scalable solution to current crisis or as a feasible solution, at the very least and a full blown solution at the very best.

‘What protein we put on our plate’ has been a long raging debate. The push & pull of resources v/s sustainability saw the arrival of faux meat.The ‘Beyond Burger’ & ‘Impossible Burger’ have got it 100% right if their popularity & sales are anything to go by. Who would have thought a plant-based burger could have the same look, feel, nutritive value and satiety as a meat burger!

But it’s been achieved- these are bonafide mainstream food options! Food industry giants are already investing in newertechnologies, one of them being meat grown organically from animal cells.

As I’ve mentioned earlier on, gobally almost 30% of the food manufactured is wasted, either pre or post processing. The proportion of food and agricultural waste generated at the pre-consumer level represents a significant burden on the environment.

However, these by products or waste streams hold significant economic potential if transformed into revenue streams such as biofuels and ingredients using enzyme stabilization & immobilization technologies.

There is real opportunity in designing commercially translatable immobilized enzyme systems towards the ultimate goal of sustainable food production and reduced food waste.

I firmly believe that the answer to these challenges to our existing food systems is ‘technology’ and long term shift in ‘thought process’ of the end consumer, as to how they see food and what role they expect food to perform. ‘Green’ technologies like Biotechnology, enzymology have the value and capacity to make food production efficient.

Processing can assure that our food is safe, prevent spoilage & waste, and increase its nutritional value. Use of enzymes can offer solutions for global nutrition and health issues, including aging, malnutrition, obesity, etc.

Digitisationis a long suffering component of our food delivery system which needs not only a revamp, but a complete overhaul. COVID 19 has hastened digitisation. Consumers’ switch from physical retail towards e-commerce for their food choices has quickened, and its here to stay, as we are yet not fully prepared tooperate around the constraints of social distancing for years to come.

Consumers are looking to ring fence their & their family’s health and will exercise higher levels of caution and discipline while making food choices, which is bound to transform food delivery for good. Food has to be marketed as 100% safe. Many consumers who have shifted to e-commerce for their meat and cold cuts, say that they plan to continue shopping online even when shops reopen.

This option, while more expensive, the claims made by online sellers as to its ‘safety’ & ‘hygiene’ make it worth it. This shift is very telling. Consumers are willing to try new things, willing to spend more because they are assured of ‘food safety’, ‘packaging quality’ and  ‘hygiene’.

Needless to say going forward this segment will grow, because people will step out of the house only if necessary, in order to minimise exposure and will prefer home delivery with a guarantee of safety, putting processed food in the spotlight!

In light of the challenges and threats, we clearly need to build a more regenerative and nourishing, climate resilient food systemsafeguarding our natural resources, ensuring environmental sustainability ,  reducing food waste by improving hygiene and sanitation across the value chain and increasing access to and affordability of healthy foods. Frankly, it’s a lot and will require several agents of change across industry to work in tandem.

As food producers, we need to challenge ourselves to produce food responsibly.  Enzymes stoked my interest and made a believer out of me almost a decade ago. What’s more, there is newer and newer evidence before us pointing at how use of enzymes has the potential to not only transform food production but also contribute to environmental sustainability, making it a viable alternative. Enzyme catalysis is the most promising/challenging field of catalytic research which has the capability to solve world food problem.

The journey in the direction towards building a sustainable & nutrition secure food system, will require some major transformations- green and efficient technologies, consumer involvement & discipline and digitisation are just some of them. It will not be easy, but it cannot be put off for long. We have the science, we have the research, we have the resources and there is a necessity. The sooner we put it to action, the better.  (In arrangement with: CORPORATE TYCOONS MAGAZINE, Editor - CHANDRAN IYER)

(O.PSingh is the Managing Director, Huvepharma SEA (Pune) Pvt. Ltd which is a fast-growing global pharmaceutical company with a focus on developing, manufacturing and marketing human and animal health products.)


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