Sustainable food systems focus on food production, processing, and waste management to ensure efficiency and low environmental impact of the food industry. Until the end of the 20th century, these processes were largely seen as independent, resulting in numerous issues. While the population of the Earth keeps growing, limited resources and environmental problems become a global issue that forces governments worldwide to think differently. Food industry management has a significant impact on society and the environment, and it cannot be approached in the same way as it was during the industrial revolution. Sustainable food systems offer a new approach that can define the future of humanity for the next centuries.
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Overview of the Challenges in Modern Agriculture
To study sustainable food systems, it is crucial to understand the causes of the crisis in the food production industry. Dwivedi et al. define primary issues as “decline of biodiversity, climate change and greenhouse gas emissions (GHGEs), hunger and malnutrition, and poverty and water scarcity” (842). Numerous researchers agree that the current crisis is primarily caused by the reductionist approach to agriculture. Reductionism aims to simplify systems by assuming the key role of a single factor rather than analyzing those as complex phenomena. This approach was used mainly for the agricultural reforms of the 19th century, which largely laid the foundation for the modern food production industry.
The industrial revolution of the 19th century had a dramatic impact on the agricultural industry. The uses of fertilizers and similar strains of seeds were seen as crucial to ensure increased productivity, and the theories advocating sustainability did not stand a chance against the principles of rising capitalism (Biel 12-16). The continuously growing consumption of refined foods is one of the consequences of the reductionist approach. Dwivedi et al. note that, besides contributing to health issues, refined foods production increases carbon footprint (844). The low biodiversity of crops is yet another issue that poses a severe threat to human health.
The Green Revolution was introduced in the 1950s as a plan to deal with hunger issues worldwide. However, it is impossible to ignore the scope of the negative impact it had on public health. For example, heavy reliance on rice and wheat diet has led to significant malnutrition issues in South-East Asia (Dwivedi et al. 845). Overall, the Green Revolution in the 20th century followed the same reductionist thinking patterns that inspired the agricultural reform in the 19th century. Sustainable food systems can prove to be the best alternative to this simplified approach.
Sustainable Agriculture and the Importance of Diversity
Sustainable agriculture is a concept that addresses the issues that have emerged as a result of the “industrial” approach to agriculture in the past centuries. Shelef cites land and resource management, as well as human and ecosystem interfaces, as the major principles that define it (50). Land management ensures the quality of the soil in the long term. Shelef states that “compost incorporation, cover crops, intercropping, crop rotation, and sustainable tillage management can offer beneficial solutions regarding soil organic matter management” (51). Resource management focuses on the use of energy and, most importantly, water. In a sustainable system, numerous environmentally friendly techniques (wastewater streams, biosolarization) can be used to fight pests and disinfect the soil (Shelef 52). Human and ecosystem interfaces are connected as the environmental impact of agriculture affects both human health and ecology. Some of the steps towards a sustainable system include reduced use of chemicals, diversification of the crops, and stopping deforestation and land conversion (Shelef 54-55). While sustainable agriculture addresses several global problems, some researchers argue that its implementation can result in lower productivity, which might worsen other issues, such as hunger.
Malnutrition is considered to be a crucial factor in the food industry crisis. Hence, sustainable food systems aim to increase dietary diversity by increasing the heterogeneity of the crops. Current regulations in agriculture are geared towards the “stability” of the crops, limiting the evolutionary potential and, as a result, the biodiversity of the latter. Biel suggests lifting some regulations to allow for more space for natural evolution and farmer-based research (62). Arguably, these two factors are crucial to reducing crops homogeneity.
Evolutionary breeding is a technique used in sustainable food systems to improve diversity. By growing multiple genotypes of the same crop, farmers can achieve better biodiversity due to the natural crossing of the seeds. Dwivedi et al. note that “farmers using evolutionary populations report high yields and low levels of weed infestation, disease incidence, and insect damage” (847). For instance, this technique benefited rice plantations in China, where it significantly limited the spread of fungi, allowing farmers to reduce the use of fungicides (Zocca et al. 10). Evolutionary populations show better resilience, which is an important factor considering climate change. Moreover, this method contributes to dietary diversity, which helps to reduce health risks.
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Wild and orphan crops have a huge potential to increase biodiversity. Biel argues that some of the weeds generally perceived as harmful are actually edible plant species (59). Orphan crops are often under-researched, but evidence suggests that they could potentially solve nutrition-related problems. Borelli states that research has proven that several native fruit species in Brazil have more vitamins A and C than fruits that are traditionally considered the best sources of these vitamins (231). Similar research in Sri Lanka, Kenya, and Mali has shown comparable results. Researchers state that raising public awareness and implementing government programs to promote the use of orphan crops is one of the key measures that benefit the sustainability of food systems.
Innovative Food Processing Methods
One of the goals of sustainable food systems is ensuring the nutritional quality of foods. Traditional thermal processing methods affect the taste of food and reduce its nutritional value (Zocca et al. 27). In the past few decades, numerous alternative ways of processing that address this issue have emerged. Those can be divided into two main categories – thermal and non-thermal processing. Most of the new methods are still restricted to laboratory research; however, some are used commercially in developed countries.
High-pressure processing is one of the non-thermal technologies that has found commercial success in the US and Europe. It can be used to preserve food without applying thermal or chemical treatments that affect the quality of products (Zocca et al. 28). Unlike many other novel technologies, high hydrostatic pressure has no serious limitations or adverse effects that could prevent it from becoming the new standard food preservation method.
Pulsed electric fields technology is another method that could replace pasteurization for non-solid foods. While this process has a limited scope of usage (liquid foods with low conductivity) and implementation costs are high, low processing costs and good quality of the processed products make it a promising technology (Zocca et al. 28). Alternatively, liquids can be processed using membrane technology that has been used commercially for a few decades. Membrane separation can be used to refine juices, oils, and dairy products. This method produces less pollution and is more energy-efficient than traditional pasteurization (Zocca et al. 29). Notably, the research on membranes has been ongoing since the 1950s, and scholars have been continuously successful at finding new applications of the technology throughout the years.
Ozone and irradiation are used to preserve food commercially, but both methods have serious disadvantages. Zocca et al. note that irradiation leads to loss of nutrients, and a modified taste of foods, the problems that alternative processing methods aim at resolving in the first place (29). Ozone use is limited to certain products and has a high capital cost (Zocca et al. 30). Moreover, both methods require nearly ideal sanitary conditions to be efficient, and those are not always achievable.
Joule or ohmic heating is one of the most prominent novel thermal processing technologies. While this method might seem similar to traditional technologies, it does not lower the nutritional value of food and is better at preserving its qualities (Kaur & Singh 2338). Zocca et al. note that fast heating to extreme temperatures has minimal effect on food chemistry (31). Similar to other technologies, Joule heating has not found much commercial success so far due to high investment costs (Kaur & Singh 2345-2346; Zocca et al. 34). Overall, there is a lot of ongoing research on ohmic heating that could make the technology more accessible in the future.
Infrared heating has been used for years in electronics and other industries, and recent research established its potential in food processing. Low energy costs and high product quality are among the advantages of the technology (Zocca et al. 31). Aboud et al. statek that “the energy is directly concentrated on the material to be heated and does not produce volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide or nitrogen oxides” (5). Zocca et al. note that infrared heating can be combined with other methods, such as microwave heating, to achieve better results. Researchers have not determined any significant negative effects of infrared processing so far; the only limitation is the depth of penetration (Aboud et al. 5). This technology has recently gained a lot of recognition; however, its commercial use remains limited.
Radio frequency heating, on the other hand, has seen some commercial use and is one of the major contenders to replace the traditional processing methods. Similar to other mentioned technologies, RF heating is an energy-efficient, environmentally friendly process that does not affect food quality. Altemimi et al. state that RF heating units are more efficient, have better penetration, and are easier to construct than conventional heating or microwave units (83-84). However, the construction costs for the RF units are higher (Altemimi et al. 84). Altemimi et al. also note that the technology could serve as a better alternative to consumer microwave units in the future (90). Overall, the simplicity of the technology and its potential in the food processing industry and electronics makes it one of the most promising alternatives to traditional thermal processing.
Food Waste Management
The growth of the population of the Earth makes waste management one of the most pressing environmental issues on the planet, and food waste is one of the factors that contribute the most. Otles and Kartal state that the food industry is responsible for 31% of the European carbon footprint (373). Climate changes force governments to adopt environmentally friendly policies, and proper food waste management may be one of the most important issues. For example, food waste can be used to produce biofuels and chemicals for healthcare and cosmetic industries (Otles & Kartal 374). The biorefinery concept suggests increased use of recycling technologies instead of traditional ones, such as landfills.
Some of the traditional techniques fit in the context of sustainable systems. One of those is the use of food waste as a livestock feed. However, Otles and Kartal note that potential toxins in the feed and diseases associated with this method make it relatively dangerous (376-377). Composting is yet another traditional technique used to enrich the soil and decrease waste volumes. Otles and Kartal argue that while composting is an environmentally friendly method, it is difficult to implement it on a large scale worldwide (377). Therefore, new techniques have to be implemented in food waste management to ensure the sustainability of the system.
The biorefinery concept is designed to respond to environmental challenges of the modern world by improving food waste management and reducing the use of fossil fuels. According to Otles and Kartal, “biorefinery is based on the conversion of bio-mass by separating it into its building units to produce biofuels, chemicals, and other products” (379). Thus, biorefinery processes are somewhat similar to those of the petroleum refineries but with less environmental impact. However, the concept is associated with ethical issues, as biorefineries use not only waste but specialized crops, which can be used in food production.
As biorefineries compete with food producers for the crops while hunger remains a huge issue in the developing countries, many question the viability of the concept. Fereira argues that biorefinery has to be considered a vital part of the economy, as with non-renewable resources reaching peak production, the development of new energy sources becomes a necessity rather than a luxury (3). Otles and Kartal add that newer research focuses on better use of food waste and alternative sources of energy, such as algae, to reduce the need for the use of specialized crops in biorefineries (380). However, many of these technologies require massive investments, and it might take decades before they are used commercially worldwide.
Wasted crops and production by-products have shown a lot of potential in biofuels production research. Otles and Kartal state that “potential of bioethanol production from crop residues and wasted crops is about 16 times higher than the current world production” (383). Otles and Kartal add that the stillage (the alcohol production residue) can be used to produce biogas (384). Citrus peel, olive kernels, and cheese whey are other examples of by-products used to obtain valuable compounds (Galanakis 405). While these technologies are still far from becoming the industry standard, researchers note that social demand for sustainable production can make a difference. Overall, biorefineries are extremely important to the future of the economy, as they could prove to be the best solution to numerous issues, including food waste management and search for renewable energy sources.
The problems that have emerged from poor management of the food industry in the 19-20th centuries are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Sustainability is the concept that aims at dealing with most of the issues, such as malnutrition, hunger, high carbon footprint, and so forth. In the era of globalization, when every step taken by governments and corporations is tracked and questioned, the concept of sustainable food systems has a chance to replace the current industrial approach. Emerging technologies in food production, processing, and waste management might redefine the outlook of the food industry forever. A complex approach to the current and future issues is crucial to ensure the success of the global sustainable food system.
Aboud, Salam A., et al. “A Comprehensive Review on Infrared Heating Applications in Food Processing.” Molecules, vol. 24, no. 22, 2019, pp. 2-21.
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Altemimi, Ammar, et al. “Critical Review of Radio-Frequency (RF) Heating Applications in Food Processing.” Food Quality and Safety, vol. 3, no. 2, 2019, pp. 81-91.
Biel, Robert. Sustainable Food Systems. UCL Press, 2016.
Borelli, Teresa, et al. “Local Solutions for Sustainable Food Systems: The Contribution of Orphan Crops and Wild Edible Species.” Agronomy, vol. 10, no. 2, 2020, p. 231.
Dwivedi, Sangam L., et al. “Diversifying Food Systems in the Pursuit of Sustainable Food Production and Healthy Diets.” Trends in Plant Science, vol. 22, no. 10, 2017, pp. 842-856.
Fereira, Ana. “Biorefinery Concept.” Biorefineries: Targeting Energy, High Value Products and Waste Valorisation, edited by Miriam Rabaçal et al., Springer, 2017, pp. 1-20.
Galanakis, Charis M. “Food Waste Recovery: Prospects and Opportunities.” Sustainable Food Systems from Agriculture to Industry: Improving Production and Processing, edited by Charis M. Galanakis, Academic Press, 2018, pp. 401-419.
Kaur, Nimratbir and A. K. Singh. “Ohmic Heating: Concept and Applications—A Review.” Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, vol. 56, no. 14, 2016, pp. 2338-2351.
Shelef, Oren et al. “Elucidating Local Food Production to Identify the Principles and Challenges of Sustainable Agriculture.” Sustainable Food Systems from Agriculture to Industry: Improving Production and Processing, edited by Charis M. Galanakis, Academic Press, 2018, pp. 47-81.
Zocca, Renan O., et al. “Introduction to Sustainable Food Production.” Sustainable Food Systems from Agriculture to Industry: Improving Production and Processing, edited by Charis M. Galanakis, Academic Press, 2018, pp. 3-46.