From ensuring food safety and sustainability to optimising supply chains and producing innovative products that meet consumer demand, science plays an essential role in shaping the way we produce, distribute, and consume food. According to Bryan Hitchcock, chief science and technology officer at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), science and technology-driven innovation is intrinsic to addressing the challenges faced by the global food system.
Fostering a holistic understanding of the food system through science
As well as producing appealing products that satisfy consumer needs, food industry professionals are tasked with addressing complex issues such as malnutrition, climate change, and food insecurity. To drive innovation and uphold sustainability and food safety standards, the global food system requires a robust scientific foundation, Hitchcock told Fi Global Insights in a recent interview.
"Science and technology are the underpinning of everything that we do. It’s very important to have a broad base understanding from agricultural sourcing all the way through to consumer science and know how those various different fields intersect with one another,” he said.
With a rich career spanning over two decades in the food industry, Hitchcock’s journey - from benchtop scientist to R&D leader in various multinational companies, such as PepsiCo, to his current position at IFT - underscores the multi-faceted and interconnected nature of the global food sector.
“[It’s important to] learn about the challenges of a global system versus a local system and understand how those can work differently,” Hitchcock said.
“Ultimately, this is a people business - it's a consumer-driven business. We must ask: what are the consumer needs? What are they today? What do we project that they will be in the future?”
Championing the unsung heroes of the food industry
Through his role at IFT, Hitchcock seeks to bridge the gap between the scientific and commercial sides of the food industry by translating complex technical information and fostering collaboration, communication, and research dissemination across the value chain to solve system challenges.
“We see a broad lens of the challenges that are out there and analyse the trends that are happening. Then we can bring people together to talk about those challenges […] As much as science underpins everything, you can't do the science without the people, so you really need both.”
Despite its magnitude, the role that science plays in the food system is often understated, according to Hitchcock. Highlighting the significant contribution of the middle segment of the supply chain in converting agricultural commodities into safe, nutritious, and sustainable foodstuffs, is key to driving innovation and increasing consumer awareness in the food industry moving forward.
“Small groups of people can have a big impact in getting the ball rolling […] We’re going to continue doing our part in highlighting the things that are happening, bringing people together, and then supporting them in their journey to make small steps,” Hitchcock said.
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Science and technology drive innovation and efficiency in the food system
The interplay between science and technology is pivotal in addressing the food system’s greatest challenges. A rise in the understanding and use of data and artificial intelligence (AI) could enhance traceability, supply chain management, and sustainability by accelerating scientific discovery and transforming the ways consumer behaviour and preferences are interpreted and applied.
“Technology has such a centralised role and it has done for a very long time […] It is so fundamental to the things that we do as scientists and engineers in this field that sometimes we lose track of where we were one hundred years ago relative to where we are now, and how science and technology underpin all of that,” Hitchcock said.
3D printing, a technology originally developed for the manufacturing sector but now used across the food industry, is one example of how science can be applied laterally to solve unique challenges.
“Continuing to be able to foresee and project where challenges and disruptions may be is something that we have to continue to address, but the scientists in this area are very skilled at projecting things, understanding where the trends may be coming from, and then setting up systems and responses to address those,” Hitchcock said.
Data analytic techniques are already helping to accelerate science and drive innovation and efficiency in several areas of the food industry. Thanks to data-driven approaches, rapid prototyping of new products informed by consumer demand and the management of supply chain dynamics are becoming more effective and timelier, Hitchcock says.
Data is key in building traceability and trust
Data and science are also essential in ensuring transparency, traceability, and trust in food supply chains. Hitchcock, who is also the executive director of IFT’s Global Food Traceability Centre (GFTC), sees traceability as a “data backbone” that supports multiple use cases.
“AI and blockchain technologies are mechanisms to take a look at the data and tell you what it says, so we're very excited about that space,” he said.
Improving the analysis of data and enabling swift responses to disruptions, the advancement of new technologies offer hope in solving growing issues caused by factors such as supply chain disruptions and climate change. Yet challenges continue to persist and complex issues require multifaceted solutions.
“I think the tough thing about these challenges is there's no silver bullet or easy solution. They often overlap with each other,” Hitchcock said.
The often slow pace of traditional scientific validation raises questions about its adaptability to the fast-paced commercial food industry. Occasionally, solutions or products come to market that lack scientific backing and consumer understanding, Hitchcock acknowledges.
“I think one of the key things is trust in science. In many cases, the public is looking for things in a simplified, easy-to-understand mechanism. Science is often very difficult to communicate in that way,” he said.
Striking the balance between rapid product development, rigorous validation, and consumer trust remains a continual learning curve.
“Overall, we have to do a better job as media and scientists together to figure out how to help the folks reading daily news around what they should be doing and what steps can be taken. [We are] building confidence that things will change as we communicate with science and food professionals,” said Hitchcock.