FAPESP Week California panel discusses food and food security policies

Researchers present studies underway at the Food Research Center, one of the RIDCs funded by FAPESP, along with food policies in place at the World Food Center of UC Davis

By Fernando Cunha, in Davis

Agência FAPESP – Research studies on food security and policies in the field in Brazil and the U.S. were the topics discussed during the Agriculture and Food Research Panel at the FAPESP Week California symposium held November 20, 2014 at the University of California Davis.

Sponsored by FAPESP, with support from the Brazil Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, DC, the meeting brought together Brazilian and U.S. scientists who presented research findings and discussed opportunities for collaboration in the fields of energy, materials science, education and State-society relations.

In her presentation on food safety challenges in the 21st century, researcher Bernadette Gombossy de Melo Franco, coordinator of the Food Research Center (FoRC) – one of the 17 Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (RIDCs) funded by FAPESP –, highlighted developments in the management of food quality and safety.

Among the lines of research developed at the center are: Biological Systems in Foods, which includes studies about the genome of substances found in Brazilian fruits and vegetables; Food, Nutrition and Health, for the application of these components in promoting human health; and New Technologies and Innovations, aimed at packaging and preservation.

“The center’s main challenge is investigating ways to ensure the safety of food so it does not harm the health of consumers,” said Bernadette Franco, who is also a professor at the School of Pharmaceutical Sciences of the University of São Paulo (FCF-USP). According to her, “research should contribute to handling the risks of environmental changes and technologies that are the result of human activity on earth.”

One of the factors generating this level of attention are changes in global demographics. The increase in the world’s population, projected to reach 10 billion by 2050, has favored the spread of infectious agents and microorganisms in food. Another important point, according to the researcher, is the increase in the proportion of older people in the population who are more susceptible to pathogens.

Obesity and chronic diseases related to the aging population also contribute to increased susceptibility to pathogenic agents found in foods. Furthermore, there is the risk arising from the expansion of international trade and globalization of the food industry, which uses ingredients that come from a variety of different countries.

Projects underway at the Food Research Center are also investigating salmonella bacteria contamination and management of food risk, exploring antimicrobial compounds produced by microorganisms and by the interactions between them.

The results may be applied in the production of enzymes to reduce allergenicity to milk proteins, for example, and to investigate the capacity of bacteria found in food to produce vitamins, such as riboflavin, to increase the nutritional value of these products.

Policies for health and agriculture

Josette Lewis, associate director of the World Food Center at UC Davis, highlighted the Center’s objective expanding the impact that research carried out in the field has on health and creating sustainable solutions for agriculture.

Established in 2013, the U.S. center integrates scientific leadership from universities with representatives from business and society in order to promote public and private sector partnerships. The teams work to increase research capacity in the field of food and the impact of its results in defining public policies for the sector.

Another goal is to communicate the knowledge generated at UCD in the fields of engineering, agriculture and the environment to expand the promotion of a healthy diet among the population.

“We are also working with various research groups at the university to increase the efficiency in the use of energy and water, developing solutions that can be applied to agriculture and the food industry to increase the sustainability of these activities,” Lewis said.

With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the center is developing strategies to handle the increasing number of cases of diabetes in countries with high rates of poverty. In the case of China, researchers in the field of food security at the institution are working together with universities, businesses and the public sector to find nutrition solutions for the population of that country’s large urban centers.

Another area of expertise of the UCD World Food Center focuses on improving the energy efficiency of California’s agricultural activities. Responsible for more than half of all agricultural production in the United States, California uses six times more energy in agriculture than it does in other sectors of the economy.