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Making Food Safe and Sustainable

Jan/01/2023 / by Bindu Gopal Rao

Madhura Rao, an expert on food law and policy, explores ways to gauge the cost of food waste

Researcher, science communicator and educator Madhura Rao writes about the latest developments in food science and technology. But at heart, she admits, she is a foodie. Her professional endeavors come from a place of wanting to understand food and food systems better.

Early Days

Knowing from a young age that she wanted to pursue a food-centric career, Rao made the choice at 18.

“I wanted to find a program that would allow me to combine my interests in food and the social sciences. However, growing up in India, I faced pressure to pursue a career in a ‘hard’ science, such as medicine or engineering. Good grades are often seen as a guarantee of success in these fields. Family and well-wishers suggested that I consider studying food technology if I could not commit to medicine or engineering.”

Rao was motivated by both her desire to rebel against societal expectations and her interest in studying “real” food. So she studied food, hospitality, and tourism for her undergraduate degree.

“While my interest in food remained steadfast, I realized that hospitality and tourism was not the right career path for me,” she said. “I wanted to pursue graduate studies in a field that would allow me to examine the systemic issues affecting food production and consumption. That was difficult in India’s inflexible education system, so I looked for opportunities abroad.”

Food Path

In 2016, Rao began her M.Sc. at Wageningen in the Netherlands. It is one of Europe’s most reputed institutes for studying food and agriculture. She went on to specialize in supply chain safety, her research track being food law and regulatory affairs.

“During my two years at Wageningen, I developed a strong interest in sustainable food supply chains and European food law. In 2019, I embarked on my Ph.D. journey with the Food Claims Centre, Venlo. I was offered the opportunity to combine my academic interests and work with a team whose ambition mirrored mine.”

Everything she does for work, she does with a singular agenda, Rao said.

“I want us to be able to enjoy good, nourishing food in the years to come,” she said. “While this sounds rather straightforward, the changing climate and looming resource scarcity make it a challenging goal.”

Making a Difference

Public policy, food law, and sustainability often overlap in their efforts to promote the health and well-being of individuals, communities, and the environment. Food policy refers to how public authorities regulate and shape the food system. Food law govern the production, distribution, and consumption of food. Sustainability, the third pillar of her research, involves the ability to meet present needs without compromising the future.

“All three … often work together to address issues related to the food system,” Rao said. “For example, public policy initiatives may be designed to promote sustainability in the food system, while food law may ensure that food products are safe and accurately labeled. Similarly, sustainability considerations may inform the development of food policy and food law.”

Education Cues

At Maastricht University, her Ph.D. project explores how European policies and legislation can ensure safe and sustainable use of food waste in a circular bioeconomy. That is, an economic system that focuses on the sustainably using biological resources, such as food waste, to produce other products and services.

But ensuring food safety is a crucial aspect of this process.

People in the food supply chain industry help Rao understand the needs of a circular bioeconomy. These people include entrepreneurs, farmers, fishers, and food aid workers. They help her understand the challenges involved, and come up with recommendations to support the safe and sustainable use of food waste.

Rao hopes to devise robust food safety regulations that improve transparency and protect public health in the circular bioeconomy. This could promote economic growth and social well-being.

Rao hopes to defend her Ph.D. in the fall of 2023.