In a world struggling to manage its natural resources to provide a safe, abundant, and affordable supply of food to an ever-increasing population, biological and agricultural engineers contribute critical skills and knowledge throughout the food supply chain.
For the food industry, biological and agricultural engineers offer unique engineering perspectives. Biological engineers have a depth of knowledge in biological organisms, their physical properties and how bio-based materials behave during processing and storage. Agricultural engineers who have pursued a food engineering specialty have supplemented their basic engineering training with courses emphasizing process engineering and food sciences. This gives them an ability to understand the challenges of working with ever-changing raw ingredients (food).
While biological and agricultural engineers bring somewhat different perspectives and competencies, biological and agricultural engineers working in the food industry often carry the title of food engineers or “biomachinery” engineers. Food engineers will specialize in engineering properties of food, food safety issues, and unit operations in processing. Biomachinery engineers are more focused on designing equipment and systems to handle the rigors of food processing and the special requirements that some foods have (temperature sensitivity, fracturability, etc.).
In addition, mechanization remains an important focus of the profession. Biological and agricultural engineers are constantly working within multidisciplinary teams, adapting equipment to meet emerging environmental and consumer needs. Ventura County, Calif., illustrates the point. Over the past century, the top agricultural products there have changed from livestock to lima beans, to oranges, to lemons, to strawberries. Experts predict that the next top crop will be landscape nursery plants. Each change creates new needs for planting and harvesting equipment, irrigation, and so on, and biological and agricultural engineers ensure that those needs are met in an efficient, economical, and environmentally sound manner.
The challenges of producing a safe and affordable food supply are compounded by the reality that we must produce more with less. Again, biological and agricultural engineers have the expertise to devise sustainable solutions, and these days it is from the biological engineering discipline that much of the progress is spurred.
Biology has always been at the core of the agricultural engineering profession, but only in the most recent decades has it advanced to a point at which biological engineering can emerge as a primary focus of research and development. The various names of university programs across the country now reflect this emphasis. Biosystems engineering, bioresource engineering, and food and biological engineering are just a few examples of the varied departmental names that have emerged around the new biological engineering discipline, while agricultural engineering has a renewed excitement as the context and objectives of farming systems and the agricultural industry change to produce bioenergy and biobased materials as well as foodstuffs.
Biological and agricultural engineers are conducting exciting research, much of it in major universities as well as in the USDA. Others are employed in private industry, making contributions that directly impact commercial products. All endeavor to solve some of the most perplexing problems of our day, most importantly the availability of a safe, steady, and affordable food supply in the face of a growing world population.
One of the most important ways in which they do this is by finding ways to minimize waste and maximize efficiency. Protecting products from spoilage and contamination can minimize waste, as well as enhance food safety. Long recognized as experts in optimizing crop storage strategies that reduce spoilage, biological and agricultural engineers apply their complementary competencies to develop more sensitive and accurate technology for detecting food-quality problems at the processing stage. In poultry processing, for example, researchers in Athens, Ga., have developed a compact, portable camera that will identify fecal contamination with color imaging, processing up to 400 birds per minute. That speed is well above the current industry standard, and the technology provides far greater accuracy than can be provided by the visual inspection required by federal regulation.
The engineering profession is also at the forefront of efforts to find innovative uses or treatment of agricultural and food processing waste. Many such materials are potential energy sources, for example. The trick is often devising the right conversion process and technology. Again, biological and agricultural engineers, thanks to their understanding of biological processes and equipment systems design, are leading those efforts. Even as students, they get experience in devising sustainable solutions. One recent nationwide student contest, ASABE’s Gunlogson Environmental Competition, challenged students to devise an efficient treatment system for sugary waste from a fictitious food processing plant.
Minimizing waste can also apply to production efficiency, which helps keep food affordable. Being able to see how a problem affects, and is affected by, the entire system – an advantage biological and agricultural engineers bring to the workplace – greatly improves efficiency.
ASABE member and food engineer Mary Maley works for a leading producer of cereal and convenience foods, and says her unique education allows her to be creative and adaptable in her job. “In my career,” says Maley, “I have spent time troubleshooting food processing lines, and I’ve worked to make the same product on different equipment with raw materials from different parts of the country.”
Terry Howell echoes those remarks. Among the 100-plus engineers at the major snack-food producer where he works, he is the only one with the broad education provided by biological and agricultural engineering.
“Several others have self-taught themselves the skills I learned in school,” he says, “but I do provide unique perspective to our daily challenges. My biggest contributions have been providing insight into unit operations and applying my training to specific questions in that area.”
FOOD, FUEL, OR BOTH?
Because of their unique expertise in producing and processing biobased products of all kinds, biological and agricultural engineers are understandably involved in the development of biofuels, and often they are asked about the “food-versus-fuels” debate. Most agree that the current way in which the world’s population meets its energy needs – using fossil fuels – is not sustainable and that renewable and sustainable alternative energy sources, including biobased products, must be developed. It is crucial also that both energy and food is adequately provided.
Biological and agricultural engineers know that the world has great capacity to meet both needs, and many are already involved in devising the relevant strategies and technologies. However, an effective energy policy must be enacted that encourages producers and users of energy and food to make choices and take actions that are in the best interests of humanity.
James H. (Jim) Dooley is Chief Technology Officer and co-founder of Forest Concepts, LLC. He is also serving as 2008-2009 President of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, a professional and technical organization dedicated to the advancement of engineering applicable to agricultural, food, and biological systems. Founded in 1907 and headquartered in St. Joseph, Michigan, ASABE comprises 9,000 members representing more than 90 countries. For further information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.asabe.org.