Farm to Fork

UNSW Engineering’s cutting-edge research is changing the way we think about food

IN SOME WAYS it looks creepy. A tractor, with no one on board, driving up and down a paddock, turning precisely at the end of each row, planting seeds. It’s like the Mary Celeste of the farming world – a ghost tractor!

But this driverless innovation is just one small link in a new food chain being created by researchers in UNSW Engineering. Whether in primary production, food storage or processing, our researchers are finding ways to make food better for us, safer and cheaper to produce.

Food as “medicine”

At a micro level, our researchers are experimenting with the chemical structure of food to give it different properties and functions.

“We’re not looking at food as just a food, but as a way of preventing disease,” says Dr Alice Lee, Senior Lecturer and Undergraduate Food Program Authority in the School of Chemical Engineering and Co-director of the ARC Training Centre for Advanced Technologies in Food Manufacture. “Food is medicine,” she says, “and research at the Centre is unlocking food’s properties that cause problems such as allergies, diabetes or even obesity.”

Established last year, the Centre brings together the skills and facilities of institutions such as CSIRO, The University of Newcastle, the University of Western Sydney and the University of Nebraska in the USA, but is headquartered at and led by UNSW.

“It encompasses many different areas of food science and technology through a wide variety of projects,” says Co-director of the Centre, Associate Professor Jayashree Arcot. “It’s supporting 10 PhD scholarships and three postdoctoral fellowships for three years.”

Research into cow's milk is being undertaken as it is the most prevalent of all food allergiesImproving food “by stealth”

Some of Jayashree’s own research has focused on how nutrients are absorbed into the body, and has included boosting the nutritional value of rice by fortifying it with folic acid, iron and beta-carotene. “We’re trying to look at it holistically – we want to create food that is high quality, safe and accessible,” she says.

Jayashree says an area of research that she gets particularly excited about is improving the nutritional value of food “by stealth” – getting inside the structure of the food and changing its properties for better health outcomes. “We’re never going to stop people eating snack foods, but can we provide the same snack foods with better nutritional quality?” she asks.

“One of the things we’re focusing on is obesity and trying to reduce the energy derived from starchy foods. There are ways of changing the structure and function of carbohydrates for example, so people don’t necessarily get as much energy from them.” 

Dr Alice LeeAlice has been studying cow’s milk because its allergies are the most prevalent of all food allergies in childhood. She has been developing non-thermal processes that can reduce the allergic potential. She says high-pressure, non-thermal treatment is being increasingly used by food manufacturers in Australia and overseas to inactivate microorganisms or to change the functionality of some ingredients.

“In the future, high pressure treatment will be preferred over thermal processes for certain food products – partly because of the energy cost saving and partly because of an increased ability to manipulate food functionality the way we want.

“There is also a flavour issue. Thermal processing changes the flavour of fruits and vegetables, for instance, and the consumer’s preference is to have natural flavour.”

Minimising food waste

Alice LeeLooking at the bigger picture, Alice says a major focus of food research in the next 10-20 years will be on reducing food waste. “The world’s population is projected to increase exponentially but the amount of food we’re growing at the moment is not enough to sustain this growth. In addition,” she adds, “40% of food currently grown isn’t actually eaten  it goes to waste; and 20% of food produced around the world is contaminated with mycotoxins.”

Research at the Centre has therefore looked at quick, simple and effective diagnostic tools to help detect pathogens, toxins and allergens in food, whether caused by something in the natural environment, such as microorganisms in the water used to irrigate crops, or the deterioration of packaging. For example, the plastic lining inside food tins contains Bisphenol A, which has been linked with changes in endocrine function in humans. “During the processing, they can get leached out, and during storage as well, depending on whether the food is fatty or acidic,” Alice says.

Smart packaging

“Australia’s already got this clean, green image when it comes to food production and we need to maintain that to be able to export food,” Jayashree says. “Therefore, our researchers are looking at smart packaging, or developing sensors that can alert consumers or food manufacturers if there is a problem with the food. We’re also trying to develop acceptable and safe biodegradable packaging from agricultural waste sources,” she says.

Our researchers are also working on potentially recovering nutrients from manufacturing waste and seeing if they can be marketed as separate ingredients. Many of these projects are being undertaken in association with industry.

Waste not, want not  the logistics of feeding the needy

Meanwhile, across campus at the Research Centre for Integrated Transport Innovation in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director, Vinayak Dixit has been working with not-for-profit groups such as OzHarvest and Foodbank to develop more efficient ways to transport the “waste” food that they are given to distribute every day.

OzHarvest, delivering food to the needyIn one year in Sydney, OzHarvest distributes 1,500 tonnes of donated food, dealing with more than 800 food donors and more than 200 charities. Much of this food is fresh and has to be distributed quickly.

“They have to make sure they don’t waste any of that food,” Vinayak says. “They work under a lot of constraints because they don’t have enough resources, especially from a transportation viewpoint. They do a fantastic job, but it’s all done manually. It’s a very challenging and fascinating problem.”

Using statistical analysis, Vinayak has helped to predict and understand how much food will be donated, where it will be coming from and when. “Then we try to find the most efficient way to route that food through.” Algorithms have been written, and Vinayak is working with the groups to determine the next stage.

Ghost tractor

Will farming become like a factory floor?Back on the farm and the driverless tractor systems, designed by Associate Professor Jay Katupitiya in the School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, are being hailed as revolutionary by primary producers who have seen them in action and can see the labour and cost-saving potential. “The end users have enormous interest,” says Jay. “We now need truck and tractor manufacturers on board.” Commercial discussions are currently being held.

One of the biggest strengths of the system is that the position of every seed is recorded within an accuracy of a couple of centimetres. This has massive cost-saving potential in terms of the application of farm chemicals Jay says. “You’re not going to be applying pesticides to where there are no pests. You’re not going to be applying herbicides to where there are no weeds. Increased accuracy means increased efficiency.”

There are still a few engineering hurdles to jump, such as designing a seeder that can “actively” follow the tractor, and increasing the speed of the system from 10km/hr to at least 16km/hr (the minimum that agricultural seeders currently work at). But Jay is confident that a paddock of crops in the future will be set up much more like a factory floor: maximum efficiencies, excellent systems and machines knowing precisely where everything is. “Everything will be streamlined, crops will be planted accurately and the system will know exactly at which point a plant is cultivated.”

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