SLU news

SLU's focus on food science

Published: 02 April 2024
A man and a woman on a field with a drone. Photo.

A significant portion of SLU's research revolves around putting food on the table. It is an ever-relevant issue in society during a time of changing climates and a need for increased food resilience. How does SLU invest in food research, what will we be eating in the future, and how can we reduce our climate impact?

What we eat and how we handle food affects the environment in many ways. By changing our eating habits or inventing new foods, we can for example reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Food can also have a positive impact on the environment, for instance by increasing biological diversity. At SLU, there is expertise in production of food raw material and in-depth knowledge of food. This knowledge is needed to face the future and develop climate-adapted foods with functional properties. The goal is foodstuff that are both attractive, tasty, and nutritious.

Cost is, of course, important. To afford climate-adapted food, we must reduce energy consumption, develop new processes that preserve nutrients, and recycle new foods from by-products that were previously lost. All of this requires interdisciplinary research efforts.

– Today, people do not have the same connection to agriculture as they had a few decades ago. Food is in the store, and then you might not think much more about it, says Torleif Härd, dean of the Faculty of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences.

Interdisciplinary Food Research

But perhaps something is changing? Many became aware of the fragility of global food security when Russia invaded Ukraine. Extreme weather and the effects of climate change are also significant threats to global food chains. Drought in South America could result in a sudden shortage of coffee and soybeans. At SLU, a significant portion of the research focuses on food.

– We research questions from farm to fork, including aspects related to recycling, circulation, climate effects, and systemic perspectives. We are unique in the field of food science. Here, all aspects are covered: science, technology, social sciences, and economics. SLU works with food on a broad scale, says Torleif.

SLU and the Swedish Food Strategy

Sweden's national food strategy, aiming towards 2030, is the first Swedish food strategy that encompasses the entire food chain. Here, SLU has provided input to the government.

– We have outlined the conditions necessary to achieve the goals of the strategy and proposed ways that SLU can contribute today and in the future. We have also put forward proposals on how to strengthen the Swedish food system. For example, aquaculture can increase our self-sufficiency, and we can boost our production of fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, herbs, and nuts if we create favorable conditions for the horticultural industry, says Annsofie Wahlström, Programme Director for the platform SLU Future Food.

SLU Grogrund is a center for breeding of food crops that started after a government decision and is part of Sweden’s national food strategy. Here, academia, society and the business sector join forces to develop competence within plant breeding.

– SLU Grogrund has existed for six years, and we have built a network who cooperate to refine and grow straw grain, fodder for animal feed, oil crops, legumes, potatoes, sugar beet, fruit, and berries in a competitive and sustainable way in Sweden, to contribute to food safety and preparedness, says Eva Johansson, program manager for SLU Grogrund.

SLU conducts interdisciplinary research on food

Research on food is conducted at all SLU’s faculties and many departments. Researchers at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Science investigate issues related to food safety from both plant and animal sources, antibiotic resistance, zoonoses, and the health of both humans and animals. At the Faculty of Landscape Architecture, Horticulture and Crop Production Science, world-leading research is carried out in horticultural science and plant production.

– We have a new method where we spray small RNA, a kind of regulatory RNA molecules, on potato leaves to combat potato late blight. The method turns off the genes of the pest that would otherwise help the pest to infect the plant, says researcher Ramesh Vetukuri.

At the Plant Protein Factory, proteins and other products are extracted from green plant parts that are otherwise left in the field. The different fractions can be used as food and feed. This is a collaboration with SLU researchers, SLU Holding and the industry.

Fishing and a self-sufficient agriculture

The Department of Aquatic Resources conducts research on fish and shellfish in seas, lakes and waterways and oversees fishing quotas. They have the research vessel Svea to aid them in their work. Another department engaged in food science is the Department of Energy and Technology, where approximately 35 people work with methodology based on life cycle analysis to evaluate and improve food systems in various aspects. The entire chain from agriculture to consumer is analyzed.

– Our systems researchers integrate details into production as a whole and can develop improvements that reduce climate effects. Often, we collaborate with both authorities and companies, so the results quickly translate into reality. Many researchers at the department are working towards making agriculture self-sufficient, and currently, our focus is on electricity and hydrogen as upcoming fuels in agriculture, explains Professor Per-Anders Hansson.

New subject areas in food science

At the Department of Molecular Sciences, research is conducted on food processing and the connection between food and health.

– Here, SLU takes the opportunity to make the research more focused. In the long run, the department will have two subject areas – food biotechnology and food chemistry. Currently, the working name for the latter area is Food Science and Technology. We are strengthening the areas with university lecturers. This will happen gradually in connection with retirements. The area of food biotechnology exists already today. The reorganization means that world-leading researchers will be recruited in areas that we believe will be incredibly important for sustainable food in the future," says Torleif Härd."

What does a food agronomist do?

To produce future food sustainably, there is a need for educational programs that provide foundational knowledge and serve as a stepping stone into the industry or further research studies.

Most of SLU's programs and courses focus on the food system, encompassing areas such as soil and plants, animals and sustainability, veterinary medicine, ethology and animal welfare, energy systems, food and landscape, or an education to become a food agronomist. Food agronomy is a unique education in Sweden.

– Food agronomists enter the workforce with a solid understanding of the composition, properties, and functionality of both food raw materials and the finished food product. Through the interdisciplinary elements in the education, students gain a thorough understanding of how our natural resources can be optimally utilized for environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable food production, explains Klara Nilsson, acting Program Director for the Food Agronomy program.

Industrial PhD students develop sustainable food

LiFT is a national research school that started in 1997 as part of Food Science Sweden. It brings together the major players in Swedish food research - SLU, Chalmers, Lund University, Örebro University, KTH, and RISE. The school strengthens the competitiveness of the Swedish food industry by providing highly educated PhD students with advanced scientific competence in areas crucial for Swedish society and industry.

With SLU's industrial PhD program, LivsID, direct contact was established between academia and companies. The program started in 2018 and involves nine companies. Today, the majority of the PhD students have completed their PhD studies.

– The PhD students have been employed by the company where the project is based, focusing on applied research in the field of food. The idea was for them to interact with each other and create a network between academia and industry. This initiative has been very successful, despite networking being affected by the pandemic, says Volkmar Passoth, coordinator for LivsID.

The ship is heading in the right direction

– We are on the right track, steering the ship in the right direction to develop research that ensures food safety in Sweden. SLU has close connections to various trade associations, for example Lantmännen, but not as good contacts with the distributors. If I could make a wish, I would like to have a new semi-governmental organization as a link between the university and agriculture. We are doing some things but cannot do everything that is required. Something similar to Skogforsk but focused on food instead of the forest would be ideal, concludes Torleif.