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Sustainability in food science: Keeping up with industry trends

Series contributors: Xiaonan Lu, Faculty Fellow, and Arusha Fleming, Student Fellow

Why build sustainability into a food science course?

Dr. Xiaonan Lu, Faculty Fellow: Food science is an interdisciplinary field, and food supply chain has to be sustainable so that food commodities can feed the global population. The conventional food science courses heavily focus on the science perspectives for a better understanding of food products. Recently, the importance of sustainability of agri-foods has been emphasized. This includes the dimensions of environmental sustainability, social sustainability, and economic sustainability. Therefore, attending McGill’s Sustainability Education Fellowship (SEF) program as a Faculty Fellow is a great experience for me to learn advanced knowledge and ideas in sustainability, as well as a good opportunity to reflect the teaching modes/experiences when I taught Introduction to Food Science at McGill (FDSC 200).

Arusha Fleming, Student Fellow: When I began the SEF program, it was not directly evident to me how sustainability could be fit into a food science major, primarily since it had never been a large section of the course content when I had completed my bachelor’s at McGill. It has become evident that this is a topic that consumers are considering important for their food products; therefore, it is a crucial aspect to include in the major at McGill to stay on top of trends in the industry. In addition, it is crucial to have more courses that include sustainability at McGill so that students can appreciate early on how it is related to their field. This is so that they can use that knowledge for when they inevitably work in that field and are able to critically think about areas that require improvement.

How could sustainability be built in?

Arusha: The environmental aspect of the course was the more obvious one prior to entering the SEF program. In the food industry, there is increasing demand for technology that can modify the texture of food to create alternative protein products to those of animal agriculture to reduce the carbon footprint. This is why we chose to add a lab on 3D food printing since it is one of the emerging technologies that can do this. There have also been big modifications to food packaging in recent years, particularly due to the Canadian government putting regulations on single-use plastic. Therefore, we decided to add a lab on novel food packaging so that students can get acquainted with these changing regulations and learn to come up with creative solutions.

The social and economic aspects were less obvious. Prior to the SEF program I was not aware just how crucial they are to consider when teaching a program about sustainability. It made me reflect on my previous courses and how the social aspects of food science were not often considered. To rectify this, we decided to include a trip to the food processing industry so that students can get a first-hand glance at what it is like in the industry. This is important since they will inevitably be working/managing people in the industry, and it encourages them to critically think about food waste and its economic effects. We also wanted students to contextualize food science in terms of the greater food supply chain for consumers, to integrate the social aspect. For this we aim to add guest speakers from vertical agriculture companies in Vancouver and Singapore to teach them about modern agricultural technology, or from a global food security expert to consider the demographics of the consumers when designing a food product.

What are some take-aways from the course design experience?

Dr. Lu: I was amazed by the perspectives that food science has to connect with sustainability. Eventually I believe that our global agri-food system has to be highly sustainable. I hope that I can pass this knowledge to the next cohorts of undergraduates who will take my food science course.

Arusha: I really appreciated the opportunity to help redesign this course. I was able to contribute to creating a class that I wish I had been able to take when I was in my bachelor’s. It was an insightful experience to learn the effort that goes into creating a course and to learn how teaching works. There were many aspects that I had not considered previously, such as the importance of learning outcomes and the word choice when creating them. I also learned about different pedagogical and assessment strategies that would make an impact on the students, rather than the lecture and exam style classes that I was used to before.

What are some take-aways from the SEF program experience?

Dr. Lu: I like the atmosphere where McGill Sustainability Fellows with different backgrounds talk and communicate with each other. This reminds me of the good memory a few years ago at the University if British Columbia (UBC) when I was elected as a UBC Peter Wall Scholar. I strongly believe that the interaction among faculty members from different fields would create sparkles that are critical to developing new ideas. Have a try to this wonderful SEF program. Mutual communication with faculty members in other fields is highly beneficial to improve your teaching quality. In addition, Arusha is an excellent student with tons of new ideas about course redesign. It is valuable to get the feedback from a student as her vision is somehow different from the instructor.

Arusha: I gained the experience of talking and meeting Fellows from other disciplines and majors at McGill than my own. Their perspectives were useful to find out what they would expect from a course such as this one, and how they view the relationship between sustainability and food science. They provided me with resources to investigate to learn how to include social aspects in the course since this section of sustainability was not evident to me before. I also had the opportunity to connect with one of the instructors from the program who asked me to give a guest lecture about one of the components from my course redesign to her class. This was very useful since I was able to give a test-run to a group of students in another field and receive feedback from that experience so that I can modify my presentation for when I give the demonstration to students in this course. I would recommend that future Student Fellows collaborate with the other Student and Faculty Fellows for the best experience. Everyone in the program has different levels of experience in terms of education history or if they are already in an environmentally focused program, and there is so much that you can learn from them.

Learn more about including sustainability in your course content, teaching, or assessment approaches, by exploring the Sustainability Education Resources article in Teaching and Learning Services’ Teaching and Learning Knowledge Base.

Read more blog posts in this SEF series and find information about the McGill University Sustainability Education Fellows Program.

Image credit: created from “Sustainable development goals still life” by Freepik and “Chemist researcher injecting strawberry with organic dna liquid while working in pharmaceutical farming laboratory” by DCStudio on Freepik.

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