By Jessica Sorensen
Nebraska could be the food capital of the world. Based on the state's location in the United States and ideal conditions for growing crops, this is possible, according to Rolando Flores, department head of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of Food Science and Technology and director of the UNL Food Processing Center.
"We are perfectly located, we have great growing conditions, we have fantastic soils and we have the know-how and we have the political will to bring Nebraska to the forefront," Flores said. "We have ideal conditions for growing crops... crops that feed masses," he said
Finding ways to use it all
Flores' research is focused on the uses, optimization and development of foods, as well as new uses for agricultural products and their byproducts. Flores said he and other researchers at UNL currently are focusing on finding ways to increase Nebraska's food production, specifically through using everything possible during the manufacturing process.
According to Flores, scientists have been researching new uses for the food that remains after going through the manufacturing process. As an example, Flores explained the increased emphasis on dietary fiber. Twenty years ago, Flores said only 70 to 75 percent of wheat being processed into flour was actually being converted to flour. That meant that the other 25 to 30 percent of the wheat was being used directly for animal consumption.
According to Flores, due to the concern for increasing fiber consumption, more wheat is turned into whole wheat flour, thus 100 percent of whole wheat is used for human consumption. "Now we value more of the use of the fiber," he said. Faculty researchers are finding ways to use that remaining 25 to 30 percent for human consumption- in products that contain dietary fiber.
"Whatever we are going to process, we try to do it the most efficiently and try to use as much as we can."
Global effort to reduce food scarcity issues
Additionally, food scarcity is another issue that researchers are trying to solve. "It is 'how do we make food available in those places where the food is not available?'" he said.
According to Flores, finding ways to use as much food as possible is one way to help solve the problem of food scarcity. However, Nebraska isn't the only place that is working towards solving these issues. Flores said there are organizations worldwide that also are making the efforts. Flores said the university has a strong interaction with the Indian Institute of Crop Processing Technology (Ministry of Food Processing Industries) where the two groups exchange faculty and knowledge.
India is one country where food scarcity has been an issue. Additionally, it is one of several countries in which the population is projected to increase at a rapid rate until 2050, when the global population will plateau. India's food production is high; however, they are losing 20 to 40 percent of their crop before it reaches the consumer.
According to Flores, on average, India can grow up to three crops of rice a year. Compare this to Nebraska, where extreme seasonal weather variation impacts crop production. In countries such as India, there are different ways that the residents get their food to the market and many of these contribute to food loss. For example, people gather their fruits and vegetables in a basket and take them to the market on foot. By the time they reach the market in the extreme temperatures of anywhere from 90 to 100 degrees, almost one-third of the product is heat-damaged.
As for rice, some people in India thresh the plant by placing the crop on the road so that vehicles drive over it. Although this is a way to thresh the rice, the production loss can be almost half of the crop.
The paddy rice is placed on the roads to dry and thresh it. After a day or so they pick it up, remove the hulls, then bag and store it for consumption later or sell it in markets.
"This is a practice widely used in India and other places in the world; however, it is done to facilitate the processing of the raw commodity- but large amounts of product get lost," he said.
Flores said that the Indian Institute of Crop Processing Technology is working to change these procedures.
"They are already developing their own ways," he said, but added that more and better solutions are needed in the future.
Global imbalance- undernourished vs. obese
At the same time, Flores said not just any food is needed, but nutritious food.
According to a 2011 report from the Red Cross, there are currently one billion people in the world who are undernourished, while 1.5 billion people are overweight. This statistic shows the differences in the diets between societies that are developed versus those that are undeveloped.
"There are a lot of studies that say we have enough food produced currently in the world to feed everyone - the problem is where the food is and where the consumption is," Flores said.
According to Flores, this imbalance is caused by how much energy, such as carbohydrates, are in a person's diet. For example, the United States is a country with a high per-capita income, so people often can afford more food and higher-quality food. As a result, calorie intake is high and because of that, health is affected.
Flores said researchers at the UNL Department of Food Science and Technology are looking into other issues that are created by the extra calories in diets, such as seeing how it affects the digestive system and the gastrointestinal tract.
In the department's Gut Function Initiative, researchers are looking at the evolution of microbiota in the gut. Flores said researchers at UNL are studying it to determine if the microbiota in the gut have changed because of the increased calorie intake in diets, and if so, how they have changed.
Improving health through research
The researchers in the UNL Department of Food Science and Technology also study food allergens, increasing the nutrient levels of foods and creating functional foods with the goal of making people healthier.
According to Flores, one of the goals in the department is not only seeing how to provide food for a global population, but also the food for each individual in terms of nutrition.
"What is that food going to be doing for you?" he said. "How do you stay healthier?"
Flores said there are so many calories in our diets that a person could walk for five miles a day and still not burn all the calories. He said that from any point of view, everyone needs to be conscious of their nutrition because excess weight could affect the joints, sleeping habits and cause associated illness.
"We need to be aware of that and the trends in society are not for less obesity or less overweight, they are more," Flores said.
Researchers at the UNL Food Processing Center, which is part of the Department of Food Science and Technology, are working closely with technical and business development. By offering technical and business development services it allows researchers to help clients such as entrepreneurs, suppliers, retailers and food service providers.
The center is currently working with small and medium-sized businesses to help the businesses develop new products and business strategies. It also offers a training program, including education seminars, workshops and certification programs on subjects such as recipes and food allergies.
A Message From:
Facing the Global Food Challenge
A Place Without Limits: NU's Leading Role in Ag Innovation - J.B. Milliken
"Ag is Sexy Again" as Global Need for Food Increases- Ronnie Green
"Failure is Not an Option" in Addressing Global Food Scarcity- Archie Clutter
Dickey Reflects on Years as Dean of Extension- Elbert Dickey
Food Scarcity Information Dissemination Complex, Vital- Karen Cannon
Technology and Food
Nebraska- the Food Capital of the World?- Rolando Flores
Is a Fully-Sustainable World Within Reach?- Mark Burbach
Agricultural Efficiency Sustains Resources, Produces More- Roch Gaussoin
Technology, Teamwork and Stewardship Vital in Meeting 2050 Global Food Need- P. Stephen Baenziger
Protein Production Essential in Feeding the World- Matt Spangler
Nebraska's Irrigation Research Goes Global- William Kranz
The Plight of the Honey Bee- Marion Ellis
Society's Health Reflects Changing Food Culture- Georgia Jones and Marilynn Schnepf
Steps to Building a Healthier World- Jean Ann Fischer
Economics of Food
Ag Economists- Working to Assure Abundant, Safe Food- Larry Van Tassell
Global Food Scarcity, Distribution, Roadblocks- Dennis Conley
Global Economics Research Explains Food Scarcity Challenges- Lilyan Fulginiti
World Food Supply Adequate, but Poverty is the Problem- Wes Peterson
Ag Land Reflects Value of Growing Food for the Future- Bruce Johnson
A Land of Plenty- Exporting to the World Stan Garbacz- Stan Garbacz