Seed World

WATCH NOW: How Science is Making a Better Food System

Did you know that a toxin found in cereal grains could have played a role in the Salem witch craze back in the 1600s? The toxin ergot can cause hallucinations and psychosis and is thought to be a driver in the infamous witch trials, which researchers believe followed an outbreak of ergot in cereal grains.

For years, the margarine industry has tried to make a product composed only of canola oil and water, but it’s been difficult to do — oil and water simply don’t mix.

Both these challenges have been solved by researchers. University of Saskatchewan PhD student Jensen Cherewyk was recently awarded a prestigious scholarship for cutting-edge research into ergot. Her published findings last year attracted attention from major American scientific societies, which recognized them as an important advancement in ergot research and in reducing the harm ergot can do to livestock and humans.

Maria Romero-Peña, formulation scientist at Saskatchewan’s Active AgriScience, did her graduate studies in nanotechnology, and part of that research involved making margarine out of nothing but oil and water for the first time — a product in high demand among health-conscious consumers.

Both researchers appeared on this week’s episode of Seed Speaks, which focused on how science is making a better and safer food supply.

It’s no secret that consumers are worried about food safety. A Canadian Institute of Food Safety survey from last year found that only 18% of those surveyed trust companies to manufacture safe food. An FDA study from 2020 found half of consumers said they are now more concerned about the safety of their food than they’ve been in the past.

Yet, the science shows something different. Data from the Center for Disease Control shows that concerted strategies by regulators and the industry at large have significantly reduced the number of foodborne illnesses. That might seem counterintuitive, as we hear all the time about outbreaks of foodborne illness.

But the CDC data also shows that outbreaks of foodborne illness or food contamination are now diagnosed and reported more often than in the past, due to the ease and speed at which information travels — creating an impression that our food is less safe when in fact it’s probably more safe than ever.