THE UK has a new research centre to help the food industry use less energy throughout the entire supply chain. The man leading the initiative, Savvas Tassou, explains why it's a few million quid well spent.
Leading scientists and government officials came together recently for the launch of the new National Centre for Sustainable Energy Use in Food Chains (CSEF) at Brunel University in London.
The centre, one of six in the UK costing in excess of £40m, will establish a cross- disciplinary hub of engineers, scientists and industry experts to develop energy-efficient food manufacturing, distribution and retail systems to support the government’s target of 80% CO2 emissions reduction by 2050.
Many of those I spoke to at the event, in early September, said this was the most impressive turnout they had ever seen for such a launch. This highlights how important – and necessary – this centre is, both for business and for the wider world.
Let us not forget there is a global imperative to dramatically reduce carbon emissions across all heavy-use industries, including food. End-use energy demand in the food chain accounts for 18% of the UK’s total final energy use, while the food sector as a whole accounts for 195m tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions each year.
Our aim in the CSEF is to take an interdisciplinary approach to reducing these emissions in the whole food chain – from gate to plate. We will be looking closely at the production and distribution stages of the food supply chain including farming, food processing, packaging and transportation. Food retail and home consumption also need to be considered, especially the contribution that refrigeration makes to overall energy use.
But the need to reduce carbon emissions is not the only challenge facing the food industry. The industry – and this was another point emphasised at the launch – must also cope with constant demands to produce more high-quality food, using fewer resources and with less impact on the environment.
The CSEF approach to this complex issue will cover five key areas (see box). The last of these, behaviour change, is important. We will not satisfy increased demand and achieve the necessary reduction in emissions and energy if we only focus on change within the industry; consumer attitudes and behaviours will need to change too. For instance, we estimate that around 15m tonnes of food are wasted each year. Our research must address consumer needs and wellbeing, as well as those of the public and private sectors.
There are many exciting and innovative research ideas and developments taking place in pockets throughout the UK. Our centre will provide a place for these to come together to maximise the unrivalled expertise we have within our universities and our industry.
I am very proud that, as well as the three universities involved (Brunel, Manchester and Birmingham), we have 33 major industry partners actively involved including brands such as Heinz, Kelloggs, Premier Foods and Tesco. The needs and demands of industry are going to be at the heart of our work; and we will only have the impact we want if we develop solutions that work in practice.
One of our first tasks is to construct a new building at Brunel, bringing together state- of-the-art technology required for high-level R&D and to provide a physical place for people working in this field to meet and collaborate. This is initially a five-year project, but I am confident that the impact of the work we do here will be felt long after those five years are up.
Professor Savvas Tassou is head of the School of Engineering and Design at Brunel University. He is also leading the work of the CSEF.
Growing more, using less
The CSEF will approach the challenges facing today's food industry in five areas:
- Quantifying energy demand at all stages of the food supply chain to predict future energy requirements and impact
- Exploring innovative approaches for reducing energy demand at all stages of the food supply chain
- Identifying ways in which alternative energy sources can be used within the food supply chain
- Increasing product shelf life through innovations in refrigeration to reduce energy and waste
- Understanding corporate and consumer attitudes on food choice and consumption to consider how behaviour change could support a more sustainable approach in the foo supply chain