As you might expect from a man who has spent his life looking down microscopes, Professor Steven Walker is concerned about the negative press the science around food has received in recent years. Yet, he remains convinced that it will overcome any misplaced public perceptions.
“People aren’t intrinsically scared of science – in fact it’s quite the opposite,” he claims. “I’ve yet to hear anybody who’s due to have major surgery say ‘I’d like to have the artisanal operation please’. We all want as much science in our lives as we can have.”
Such positivity is very much part of Walker’s character, having been at the forefront of food science for more than 30 years. Armed with a PhD in microbiology, he joined Campden BRI in 1986 and progressed through the research association to become director general in 2009.
Now, as a widely respected figure within the industry, Walker offers Food Manufacture his thoughts on how public opinion over food science can be changed, his hopes and fears over Brexit, and what groundbreaking science we should expect in the years ahead.
As head of Campden BRI, which works with 2,500 member companies – including representation from the 15 biggest food manufacturers in the world – Walker is more qualified than most in understanding why the industry has become so embattled.
While he believes both manufacturers and retailers have a role to play in being able to “engender trust and be clear and transparent in what we’re telling people”, Walker believes a whole range of other factors are at play.
“Society is changing,” he suggests. “We’re in the era of the sound bite. Practically every hour of every day, there is a food story appearing and people tend to read the sound bite but do they have the willingness to go beneath that?”
The issue, as Walker sees it, isn’t just misinformation. He believes there is also often a lack of information – and in some cases, too much information.
Lack of communication (back to top)
“I think the truth in science always comes out in the end, but the challenge of getting there is probably getting more and more difficult.
“The scientific community needs to start finding different ways of communicating – the traditional periodic review journal as the primary vehicle of communication cannot be the only vehicle if we want to have an impact on society.”
And, for Walker, that communication should begin in early life, right back to primary schools.
“We need to be teaching children as early as possible that food doesn’t simply just appear on their plates,” he says. “There is a big disconnect between food and the science behind it, and that starts at primary school.”
A better understanding of food throughout the education system would also help recruit much needed talent into the industry come leaving school age, Walker claims.
Working with other associations, Campden BRI is involved in the skills development of around 12,000 people a year, he adds.
“At the tertiary level, we are working with the likes of the Institute of Food Science & Technology to show students that there are a whole range of career options. But it still comes back to what would attract them into the industry in the first place?” Walker says.
“If we are going to make this work, we need to help teachers with information that slots directly into the curriculum, rather than trying to say, here’s a lot of information, make something of it.”
Communicating good science is one thing, but producing it is another issue entirely. The impact of Brexit on major research projects has been a major concern for the UK science community ever since the referendum vote, but Walker remains characteristically optimistic.
Producing ‘good’ science (back to top)
“Yes, we risk being left out in the cold, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we have much to offer the European science community,” he maintains. “Projects will suffer if they don’t have some of the very best scientists in the world involved – which we have.
“I believe science is high on the government’s agenda – but we need to get some answers around Brexit sooner rather than later, so that the UK can understand its rules of participation.”
Walker is “excited” by the government’s pledge to invest an extra £2bn a year in research and development by 2020 through the formation of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which is expected to happen next year.
UKRI will be managed jointly by government agency Innovate UK and the seven UK research councils – agencies that fund university research – and Walker says bringing the two together will only benefit the scientific community.
“Uniting these highly trusted agencies can only be good for our industry, and we plan to play a key role in it,” he says.
“Given that we work extensively with the academic sector anyway, that’s where we see ourselves – sitting in that interface between industry and academia.”
Walker is acutely aware that trust between industry, government and academia is at the forefront of many people’s minds, and none more so than in the area of food safety.
He expresses concern over what data sharing on food safety and authenticity between nations will look like once the UK has left the EU, but is confident problems can be worked through – in the short term at least.
Sharing information (back to top)
“The mood music is quite positive at the moment. And we already share information with non-EU countries, so there is a model in place.
“With some agencies and countries we’ll have established relationships – but with others, the relationships will be new. So we need to work out how to build trust quickly and effectively.”
Looking further ahead, Walker is excited about the evolving science behind improving both food safety and general health, and believes metagenomics – the study of genetic material – and in particular the understanding of the DNA signatures of bacteria, will be “transformative”.
“There is some fantastic work being done in terms of the gut, where we are discovering a much broader and diverse range of bacteria than previously known,” he explains.
“Also, what causes our foods to spoil? At the moment, we are focused on very few bacteria, because we don’t really know what else is there – but those could be the important ones.”
Walker envisages that as the science improves, “much bigger data sets” will evolve. He suggests the key element will be interpreting that data and putting it to good use.
“You can have all the best equipment that will generate more data than you’ve ever had, but what do you want to do with it? But again, I think that’s an exciting thing, as it opens up a whole new world of microbiology we don’t understand.”
Putting sound science into applicable use for the food industry, and in turn consumers, is clearly what drives Walker. After all, he remains acutely aware that science offers little value if it isn’t understood by those who benefit from it.
“We have a world-class reputation in science,” he maintains. “What we need is a world-class reputation in the translation of science.”
Hear professor Steven Walker’s thoughts on the main challenges faced by the food industry and what needs to happen to overcome them in our exclusive podcast.
Professor Steven Walker
JOB TITLE: Director general, Campden BRI
DOMESTICS: Married, with two children.
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Walker jokes that he has only ever had one job interview, having joined Campden BRI from university in 1986.
He grew up in Hollywood, County Down, and went to Queens University, Belfast where he obtained his first degree in Food Science and a PhD in Microbiology.
In his first role at Campden, Walker worked on predictive microbiology and chilled foods microbiology, before becoming director of research in 1994.
A decade later, Walker became director of the Cereals and Cereal Processing Division. During this time, he developed and extended Campden BRI’s profile with government, trade bodies and industrial clients. In 2009, he became director general.
Duties away from Campden include being a board director at the Quadram Institute of Biosciences and at the Association for Innovation, Research and Technology Organisations.
He sits on a range of government committees and was recently appointed to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Agri-food Technology Leadership Council. He is also visiting professor at Harper Adams University.
HOBBIES AND INTERESTS: Gardening and wine. “Being outdoors is good for clearing the head, and I also grow vegetables,” says Walker.