Engineering talent for the advanced manufacturing of food and drink is needed now more than ever - Amanda Johnston
The food and drink manufacturing sector contributes more to the economy than all other manufacturing sectors, including automotive and aerospace. The sector directly employs over 456,000 people across every region and nation of the UK.
A report we recently commissioned found that South Yorkshire’s food and drink manufacturing sector plays a significant role in the local economy, generating £434m in economic output and providing 9,000 jobs across 170 businesses.
It is a growing sector, and one that is vital in helping to address some of the biggest societal challenges, including the climate emergency and obesity.
The global food system is the primary mechanism of biodiversity loss, the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases and accounts for an estimated 30 per cent of energy usage. In the UK, food and drink manufacturers have a legislative imperative to operate at net zero by 2050, but the UK’s largest manufacturing sector cannot do this without substantial overhaul of manufacturing processes.
Highly processed food is linked to poor health and obesity levels, with one in three people over 45 in England clinically obese. Approximately 80 per cent of processed food sold in the UK is classified as unhealthy; poor diet is the biggest factor contributing to years lost due to avoidable ill health, greater than alcohol and tobacco use combined. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) found that demand for such unhealthy food is high, which drives prices down and makes healthy eating unaffordable for many.
It's easy to see that without intervention, these societal and environmental problems will worsen. Rising raw materials and energy costs have exacerbated these issues and combined with Britain’s reliance on food imports (60 per cent of our food is produced overseas), have driven the highest price increases for 45 years.
Together, these problems present challenges for individuals, communities and whole sectors. The National Centre of Excellence for Food Engineering (NCEFE) at Sheffield Hallam University was established to bring together academia and industry to address some of those challenges.
Based in Attercliffe, Sheffield, it was set up after an industry group led by the Food and Drink Federation and the National Skills Academy for Food and Drink selected the University to lead the national response to the challenge of attracting engineering-led skills, research and innovation to the food and drink manufacturing sector.
The Centre’s research seeks to address these challenges, applying engineering and physical science advances to the processing of food ingredients and products; understanding how and why existing techniques are failing and using engineering principles to develop food processing technologies of the future.
Manufacturing processes used to convert raw ingredients into the foods and drinks we consume are critical in determining whether these products can be sustainable, healthy, and affordable. Energy wasted in heating and cooling keeps emissions and costs high. Ingredients wasted through inefficiencies hinder feeding of growing populations with available land.
Techniques used to process ingredients and food products have a profound impact on calorific content and nutritional value.
Some of our recent projects have had significant impact in the food sector. We’ve worked with Dext Heat Recovery to develop a new system to recycle waste heat in commercial kitchens to reduce energy costs and environmental impact. We worked with them to create a splashback which absorbs waste heat and uses it to heat water. This new technology is now used in over 400 Nando’s restaurants. We’re also working with Premier Foods to develop new technology to enhance energy efficiency and improve nutrition of their range of sauces.
But despite the opportunity to make a real impact on reducing carbon emissions and improving the health of the nation, the sector is experiencing severe skills shortages. The Food and Drink Federation reports that 57 per cent of manufacturers have vacancy rates of up to 5 per cent.
Developing the next generation of food engineers remains a solution the whole industry can, and must, be a part of.
Engineering talent for the advanced manufacturing of food and drink is needed now more than ever and if an awareness day like National Engineering Day shines a light on the incredible diversity and career opportunities, then I’m all for it.
Amanda Johnston is innovation manager at Sheffield Hallam’s National Centre of Excellence for Food Engineering.