Yolanda Simonsis is a 38-year veteran of the packaging and converting industries. She has held past editorial positions with two former publications of Delta Communications and Cahners...more

Food for Thought—the Italian Way

This morning I received a press release from a long-time communications colleague in Italy, Maria Grazia Facchinetti, who works on behalf of Ipack-Ima SPA. She forwarded me a release regarding an Ipack-Ima conference session, titled "Designing a resilient future: food, technology and sustainable development," that took place yesterday during the expo presently being staged on May 19–23 at Fieramilano in Milan, Italy. Ipack-Ima is co-located with Meat-Tech, Fruit Innovation, Dairy Tech, Intralogistica Italia, and Converflex—representing quite a broad selection of technologies, including packaging.

Typically, I don't share full press releases, preferring to edit them down so they're more palatable for quick reading. But today I'm deviating. For those of you who are friends to the scientific community, you will find "food for thought" here in this piece, headlined: Ipack-Ima Launches a Food Revolution.

How long and how can the world's agro-alimentary system be sustained? Currently, the situation is alarming: 800 million malnourished and 1.6 billion obese people; 40% of the wheat produced in the world becomes fuel and animal fodder; 1.2 billion tons of food are simply lost; the cultivated area of the planet is set to shrink by 20% over about 30 years according to the worst forecasts, due to desertification. At the same time the world's population, and therefore mouths to feed, will increase from the current 7 to 10 billion people by 2050, at a rate never seen before in the history of humankind. How can these mega trends be controlled, to avoid famine and at the same time unsustainable exploitation of the planet's resources, in order to balance the global ecosystem? This is the crucial question deals with today at Fiera Milano at Ipack-Ima—a worldwide process and packaging technologies show—at the conference on Designing a resilient future: food, technology and sustainable development.

The conference, coordinated by Claudio Peri, a professor emeritus of food technologies at Milan's State University, attracted highly authoritative contributions, starting with that by Greg Drescher, VP of the CIA—Culinary Institute of America—who believes that one must begin again from the everyday kitchen, reducing the consumption of animal protein without eliminating it. What are the benefits? A reduction in chronic illnesses and emissions of climate changers, associated with the intensive stock farming sector. Since it was launched, the CIA has admitted 50,000 new cooks from 30 different countries around the world, able to guide choices and tastes at the table, from restaurants to canteens, from small fast food businesses to temples of gastronomy, and through to cruise ships.

Is shifting towards a more vegetable and less animal based diet something that is reserved to professional cooks? Not necessarily. One need simply reverse proportions in a dish: meat is no longer the hero of the dish but rather the vegetables and carbohydrates. And that's it: taste, environment and correct nutrition are in harmony.

The same route is taken by Michiel Bakker, head of catering services for Google premises worldwide. Being Google the list of solutions would seem obvious—using maps to determine areas taken away from agriculture, preparing climatic maps to optimize work in the fields, etc. But the solution does not lie in technology, or at least not only: Google relies on the help of the CIA to create a vegetable based food model for its employees that also involves changing, correcting and testing healthy dishes, in order to discuss them with the suppliers.

Paolo Barilla, VP of the Barilla Group, is also convinced that diets based on the model proposed by Drescher and Bakker can contribute to reducing the environmental impact: for the same nutrition level, "vegetable" based breakfasts, lunches, suppers and snacks reduce the emission of climate changing gases by 65%. Meanwhile, the industry can and must control and guide its procurement sources, urging farmers to go back to traditional practices: rotating crops, as recommended by Barilla's 'Sustainable Durum Wheat Project,' which allowed a 36% reduction in CO2 emissions and a 10% reduction in costs due to using less fertilizers and pesticides.

Improving work in the fields is also a priority for Philippe Scholtès, General Manager of the technological cooperation division of UNIDO, the UN Organization that deals with industrial development. The added value per employee in the agricultural sector is $336 in developing countries, but rises to $1,060 in industrialized countries, shooting to $18,497 in places like Japan and Israel. This means that there is ample room for improvement. But then action is needed for the rest of food's trip as well. If it is true that 100% is produced in the field, only little more than 60% reaches the stomach—at least half the losses are due to poor packaging, incorrect storage, and supermarket management problems.

Basically, what is needed is that everyone plays their part: farmers, industry, distribution, consumers, and suppliers of technologies for transforming, packaging, and preserving foods, that is, Ipack-Ima's world. This innovative sector that is worth more than Euro 40 billion in Italy, sends a strong message to the agro-alimentary sector: "We expect a dramatic change, says Professor Peri, revolutionizing the system is not a choice, but an obligatory course: cooperating will make it possible to achieve the much awaited balance quickly, at a sustainable cost, with benefits for all."

While some deplore the waste of packaging itself, others believe it could just be a contributor to saving our planet. What role do you espouse—personally, professionally, and scientifically—for saving our planet?

Stay tuned for an unusually unbiased opinion on packaging materials in my next blog post.

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