Low food science enrollments serve up major concerns

May 29, 2009

University Park, Pa. — Feeding a world population of 6.7 billion is no small task, and that's why dwindling interest in the science responsible for a safe and abundant food supply may be cause for alarm, according to a food scientist in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

Food science departments at universities across the country have seen declines in enrollment over the last several years, a trend that may put our food supply in jeopardy, said John Floros, head of the university's Department of Food Science.

Floros and instructor Naveen Chikthimmah collected representative data from food science departments at universities nationwide to examine declining enrollment trends that started in the 1990s. Between 2000 -- when numbers peaked -- and 2004, there was a 32 percent decline in graduating food science students in North America. For an already-small community of food scientists, declining enrollment can have major impacts.

In reaction to the falling numbers, some food science departments renewed recruiting efforts, upgraded facilities and hired new staff members. The approach worked at Penn State, where enrollment rates have been climbing since 2001 and the department is now the largest on the East Coast and one of the two largest in the country.

"New facilities at Penn State certainly help to attract recruits," said Floros. "It does not hurt that the Food Science Building with its Berkey Creamery is the top state-of-the-art facility in the nation."

One reason for the nationwide decline, according to Floros, is that food scientists struggle against a common misunderstanding that they are the people who process food. "The discipline battles a common misconception," he said. "False impressions are very difficult to change. Once you gain a certain reputation, it is difficult to overcome it. The reality is that they are chemists, engineers, microbiologists, etc."

The efficiency and success of the U.S. food system is perhaps another reason people overlook food science when choosing a career path, Floros suggested. In a country where food is plentiful, inexpensive and safe, it is easy to overlook the enormous industry that makes this possible. "People have a tendency to take things for granted," he said. "Unfortunately, the state of understanding of our food system is very low. When you live in a society where there are no major issues associated with the food supply, people tend to assume that there are no jobs in the food industry for them."

In reality, food science and agriculture were the first sciences we studied as a human civilization, Floros observed. The two now make up the largest and most important industry in the world. "As a society and a country, we have probably lost sight of that," he said.

"Imagine if we didn't have food science," Floros said he often asks students. "Imagine if we had to produce all of the food that we are producing now without the expertise, the understanding, the knowledge and the interventions of food scientists. What do you think our food supply would look like?"

In places such as India, Russia and Africa, about half of the food supply is lost to microbial spoilage, insects, temperature and other issues before there is even a chance to do anything with it, Floros noted. "In this country we lose very little food because our food system is very efficient," he said. "Many other countries lack the technology, science and means to take the raw materials and use them to efficiently feed their populations."

But not this country, where food scientists are the guardians of our food supply, who ensure that the products we eat are safe, nutritional, inexpensive and tasteful. "We simply need more trained food scientists entering the industry," Floros said.

  • The state-of-the-art Food Science Building, which houses the Berkey Creamery, has helped to attract students to the food science programs at Penn State.

    IMAGE: Annemarie Mountz

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 18, 2010