UC Berkeley researchers work in UC Davis-led food systems research center

Photo of a field of crops on a hillside
Derek Harper/Creative Commons
Tarek Zohdi, head of the UC Berkeley researchers at the AI Institute for Next Generation Food Systems, said the team’s research involves creating a digital replication of a food manufacturing plant and experimenting with what might be done to make the process safer, more efficient and greener. (Photo by Derek Harper under CC BY-SA 2.0.)

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A team of UC Berkeley researchers is working in the AI Institute for Next Generation Food Systems, a $20 million center led by UC Davis.

The artificial intelligence-focused institute is funded by the National Science Foundation in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and it will include researchers from several universities

UC Berkeley researchers are working on issues including contact tracing of food spoilage, radiological decontamination and meat alternatives, according to mechanical engineering professor Tarek Zohdi, who serves as the head of the UC Berkeley team.

“My hope is for the center to apply the high technology that is present, for example in Silicon Valley, and apply it to food,” Zohdi said. “That means the design of food, the reduction of waste, the decontamination of food, the use of healthier products to make foods.”

Zohdi said the food industry has been lagging and has not utilized modern technology properly.

The research team has been working on these issues since September, but the pandemic has stopped its members from physically meeting, according to Zohdi. Despite this, their work has largely not been impacted.

“(COVID-19) has given us more of an urgent framework for national security,” said Rebecca Abergel, campus nuclear engineering assistant professor and a researcher on the UC Berkeley team. “This is an added advance that makes it more urgent to make sure everybody has access to sustainable food supplies.”

Zohdi said the team’s research involves creating a digital replication of a food manufacturing plant and experimenting with what might be done to make the process safer, more efficient and greener. After using this virtual environment, they can apply improvements to real food systems. 

By doing this, the research team hopes to do fewer physical experiments, as doing so would be more cost-effective and faster, according to Zohdi.

Abergel said she is working on providing technologies for sterilizing food, detecting contamination and preventing the growth of pathogens.

She added that the team’s research can provide useful technologies to address urgent problems and that even small improvements in the food supply chain will have a large impact.

“We’ve worked on all of the individual components already,” Zohdi said. “Now our job as a team is to synthesize together.”

Contact Mela Seyoum at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @melaseyoum.