If you are a student concerned about climate change and the environment, you might have considered majoring in environmental engineering to work in the sectors of renewable energy, water recycling or environmental remediation after university. These fields, while important, are somewhat overcrowded, making it difficult to have any really meaningful impact during one’s engineering career.
Instead of following the traditional path, engineers can consider focusing on the food system’s reliance on animal agriculture, an under-appreciated opportunity for all types of engineers.
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Innovations in food technology benefit the climate
Raising livestock produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all transportation combined. By using 70% of the world’s arable land, agriculture is the world’s biggest driver of biodiversity loss. In terms of resource use, a standard quarter-pound hamburger uses more water than three weeks’ worth of showers. However, simply telling people about the environmental impacts of their food choices is - unfortunately - not enough to achieve profound systemic change.
If we as a civilized society want to change human habits, then we need to offer affordable and easily accessible hot dogs and burgers with mayos that our taste buds crave, but without raising and killing animals in the process. The newest generation of plant-based meats already allows us to reduce the resource intensity of our eating habits, while still giving us the same tastes and textures that we have grown to love.
Burger King’s Impossible Whopper and the Beyond Burger have been making headlines - not only because of their great taste and sustainability implications but also because of their commercial success within the context of mainstream corporate America. This is not the end of the story, though; more work in the food tech space is needed and your skills as an engineer are increasingly in demand. This is just the beginning!
Engineers are in high demand in the food tech field
The market demand for healthy, yet still delicious, animal product alternatives is growing exponentially. This is an excellent reason to focus your engineering education on food and take courses relevant to this industry.
As a student, you can start by learning about the environmental impacts of the livestock industry and how we as a society can foster sustainable food systems. University courses that cover the intersections among agriculture, technology, and animal welfare are fabulous for building your knowledge base.
If you are pursuing a degree in food engineering specifically, then you can enroll in courses that teach about animal product replacements. Even if your university does not offer courses on how to make innovative new food products, then you can still take courses that teach about the functionality of ingredients, food structuring, and sustainable food processing.
After earning your engineering degree, your career options are many and varied. Cellular agriculture companies making meat, chicken, fish, and dairy, amongst other foods, without the animals, have clearly expressed that engineers are vital to their success. Chemical and tissue engineers are needed to design better bioreactors and scaffolds for cells to grow. The skills of electrical, civil, and mechanical engineers are needed to further develop and scale the production process, which requires the construction of large production plants and bioreactors along with the design of control systems to maintain the required cell-growing conditions.
Environmental engineers have a major role to play too, and the work that they do within food tech companies can be wide-ranging and operationally crucial. The plant- or cell-based product that a food tech company creates is just the final result of a sustainable food company’s operations.
To be truly sustainable, companies must source their ingredients in a responsible way - ideally procuring ingredients that are locally grown, organic, and fair-trade. Product packaging also matters; is it biodegradable or can it be recycled? A sustainable food tech company must also devise a plan for responsibly disposing of byproducts. Preferably the company’s byproducts do not become livestock feed, as often happens in the food industry. And just like any business, sustainable food companies can - and should - minimize their carbon emissions, by utilizing onsite renewable energy, installing a green roof, and taking other measures to increase their energy efficiency.
Another new initiative that environmental engineers can support is The Farm Transformation Institute. This organization aids livestock farmers to transition to plant-based veganic farming while helping them to improve and maintain their economic security. Environmental engineers could potentially work either directly for The Farm Transformation Institute or for similar food tech startups that foster collaboration between farmers who are transitioning and other companies in the food value chain.
Whether you are a high school student evaluating what major to choose or an individual with an engineering degree looking for a new job, there are countless roles for engineers in the plant- and cell-based food sector. Engineers of all types are needed to ensure the continued growth of this exciting and innovative industry. Even better, unlike many of the more established engineering professions, the job opportunities offered by food tech companies still afford engineers the awesome feeling that they are truly changing the world. And, indeed, they are.