In the first of our new interview series with prominent members of the global food science community, IFIS was privileged to speak to Dr Gunnar Sigge, Head of Department – Food Science, Stellenbosch University, and the South African Association for Food Science and Technology (SAAFoST) President 2010-2013.
Gunnar completed his BSc, MSc and PhD in Food Science at Stellenbosch University. He is currently Head of Department of Food Science at Stellenbosch University. He is an active researcher in the field of food processing wastewater management and sustainable water use in the food industry. This also includes the safety of irrigation water used for food crops that are consumed raw.
Gunnar Sigge has also been actively involved in the South African Association for Food Science and Technology (SAAFoST) since 1997, and has served on the Cape Branch as Branch Chair, headed the Scientific Programme Committee for the International Union of Food Science and Technology (IUFoST), 2010 World Congress of Food Science and Technology in Cape Town in August 2010 and currently holds the position of SAAFoST President 2010-2013.In your opinion, what has been the most significant development(s) in food science, food technology and nutrition in the last five years?
What challenges need to be met and obstacles overcome in the next five years?
I think that the most significant developments in food science and technology in the last five years have been the increased awareness of food safety systems, food security and the responses to lifestyle diseases, such as obesity and diabetes. Food scientists and technologists have had to increasingly adapt to these challenges in ensuring food safety, traceability and developing new products for a larger spectrum of consumers with differing demands.
You hold a PhD in Food Science from Stellenbosch University and are now Head of the University’s Department of Food Science. With this unique perspective, can you explain how food science is taught in South Africa, with particular reference to your department?
I think the biggest challenges for the global food industry are food safety and security. The global marketplace is providing significant challenges to food safety, food distribution and traceability, while in developing countries food security, post-harvest losses and barriers to trade are the biggest challenges. Emerging pathogens or the resistance of pathogens to various disinfectants as well as the scarcity of water will be huge burdens to the food supply chain – challenged with feeding an ever increasing global population.
Part of the Department’s mission statement is ‘to supply, through visionary education and innovative research, the South African food industry with cutting-edge technology, knowledge and environmentally friendly products and practices, as well as well trained role players’. Can you explain a little more about the relationship with the South African food industry? Does this relationship impact on what students go onto after graduating?
Food Science education in South Africa has changed considerably in South Africa in the last 25 years. Previously, food science courses tended to be commodity focussed with specialisation in the latter years of study. Today, food science courses are more streamlined, focussing on the basic principles of food preservation, processing, food chemistry and microbiology as well as bringing in important aspects such as nutrition, product development, business principles and regulations, but always built on the foundations of sound scientific principles.
During your tenure, 2010-2013, as President of the South African Association for Food Science and Technology (SAAFoST) what do you hope to achieve, promote and advance?
Close relationships with the food industry are imperative to the survival of food science departments. Not only is the relationship necessary to ensure that graduates fit the industries expectations, but also in terms of funding research. A large majority of food science research conducted in our department is funded by industry or industry-related bodies – therefore ensuring that research is relevant to the industry. Many of the postgraduates end up working in the industry in positions related to their research, but the main focus of our undergraduate and postgraduate training is to empower the students to be equipped to handle a variety of responsibilities, think critically and be able to apply their knowledge of basic scientific principles in problem-solving scenarios.
My tenure as President of SAAFoST started in August 2010 at the 15th IUFoST World Congress of Food Science and Technology, hosted in Cape Town – this was obviously a 'highlight' in SAAFoST’s 50th Anniversary year. It was a highlight, but it also put into perspective that there is still much for SAAFoST to do to continue on the foundations laid in these first 50 years. I hope that during my tenure as President the ideals of the Association can be furthered and that our service to our members and our industry can be optimised even further. Hopefully, educational support and promotion of food science as an honourable scientific discipline can be increased and highlighted. Thus, I hope that the SAAFoST Foundation that is being launched to co-ordinate all educational support initiatives will grow and that more top-class students can be attracted to food science and technology. This will be of benefit to the food industry and to the greater community of consumers, who will have a safer, nutritious and plentiful supply of food.