05 Spotlight
Cereal Foods World, Vol. 65, No. 2
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Interview with John Taylor

© 2020 Cereals & Grains Association


In this interview, Cereals & Grains Association member John Taylor describes his work with the “alternative grains” sorghum and millet in sub-Saharan Africa and his participation in Cereals & Grains Association programs and projects. He also offers his perspectives on the global food supply chain and the impact of urbanization in developing regions of the world on food security, diet, and nutrition.

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Q: What is your current position and what type of work do you do?

A: I am a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Consumer and Food Sciences and Institute for Food, Nutrition and Well-being at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. My responsibilities are research and postgraduate student supervision in the areas of cereal science and grain food nutritional quality. My specific interest has always been in the so-called “alternative grains,” in particular sorghum and millets. The term, in fact, demonstrates a Western-centric bias, since from a historical sub-Saharan African and American perspective wheat and rice are alternative grains. Be that as it may, I have two research areas: 1) understanding the science and developing technology so that these alternative grains, at least in part, can replace wheat in bread and other bakery products in regions of the world like sub-Saharan Africa; and 2) improving the levels and bioavailability of iron and zinc in cereal-based foods consumed in sub-Saharan Africa. Deficiencies in these two essential mineral micronutrients are chronic in the region and major causes of the “hidden hunger” that blights the lives of millions of women and children.

Q: When and how did you first decide you wanted to work in cereal grain science?

A: It was an evolving process that led me to be become a cereal scientist. I grew up in England, where there is an outstanding TV program about science called Horizon, which sparked my interest. Also, in high school, my biology teacher was really excellent, and we did many exciting laboratory experiments. This led to my taking a B.S. (Honors) degree in applied biology, for which I did a final-year research project on xylanase enzymes in wheat rot fungi. This, in turn, led to a Ph.D. degree on the protease enzymes and their action on the globulin storage proteins of broad beans. Then, my budding scientific career could have come to a full stop if it was not for the fact that, out of desperation, I applied for an advertised position as a post-doc on sorghum proteins in brewing at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in what was then apartheid South Africa. I later joined the University of Pretoria to work briefly on wheat, not my forte, but I was soon back to sorghum.

Q: How have you been involved with the Cereals & Grains Association? How has your involvement with the association enriched your career?

A: On joining the CSIR, I immediately became aware of AACC International through browsing Cereal Chemistry and Cereal Foods World. At the time, journal paper issues were physically circulated around the staff (how the world has changed). In 1988, I had the privilege to attend my first AACCI Annual Meeting, which was held in San Diego, CA. It was a life-changing experience to meet and talk with the giants of cereal chemistry, like Jerry Bietz and Lloyd Rooney. To my regret, I think I have gotten more out of the Cereals & Grains Association than I have contributed. I have served as an Associate Editor of Cereal Chemistry, been a member and then chaired the AACCI International Members Committee, and been involved in joint committees of ICC and AACCI. Most recently, I edited, together with my colleague Gyebi Duodu, the second edition of the AACCI standard work, Sorghum and Millets: Chemistry, Technology, and Nutritional Attributes, which was published in 2019. Foremost, membership in the Cereals & Grains Association has enriched my life through meeting with fellow cereal scientists from around the world, including Lloyd Rooney (sadly no longer with us), Phil Williams, Bob Cracknell, and Vicky Solah, and forming life-long friendships.

Q: In 2020, Cereal Foods World (CFW) is focusing on the global food system (GFS). Please offer your perspective on how global societal and technology trends are affecting cereal science and the cereal grain industry overall? How will cereal scientists need to adapt to these global trends?

A: In developing regions of the world, the most profound societal change is urbanization. It is estimated that in sub-Saharan Africa, 50% of people will be living in cities by the end of the decade. With urbanization, people immediately move from a life of subsistence farming and physical labor, where their diet is largely plant-based and generally high in minimally refined grains, to a sedentary lifestyle involving many hours of commuting to their place of work. This means that there is minimal time available to prepare meals, and hence, people have to rely on pre-prepared convenience-type foods, which are often high in energy and protein but deficient in micronutrients and dietary fiber. Poor nutrition and a sedentary lifestyle, in turn, result in obesity and its associated diseases of type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease. These diseases have a devastating effect on families by debilitating and then killing parents. Cereal scientists have to think smarter. How can we make staple foods that are nutritious, “healthy,” convenient, and, above all, attractive and affordable to these consumers?

Q: This issue of CFW explores Alternative Grains in the context of the GFS. Do you have any perspectives on the challenges and opportunities associated with the global expansion of the food chain and the dynamics of the global food trade?

A: I am particularly concerned about the impact of the massive population growth that is taking place in sub-Saharan Africa. Agricultural production is not keeping pace with population growth, due primarily to lack of implementation of efficient agricultural technologies. This is resulting in the region become ever more food insecure. The situation is being further exacerbated by the fact that the region’s agriculture is now also being adversely affected by climate change, which is causing higher temperatures and increasingly arid conditions with extended periods of drought. The world’s major cereal crops, wheat, maize, and rice, are not well adapted to such conditions. In contrast, the alternative grains sorghum and millets; the pseudocereals amaranth and quinoa; and pulses such as cowpeas, chickpeas, and pigeon peas, which originated in less developed parts of the world, are naturally better adapted to cultivation in harsh environments. Moreover, when consumed as whole grain foods they provide high levels of health-promoting phytochemicals, plus essential minerals, certain vitamins, and dietary fiber. Today, we have the strange situation that because of their nutritional attributes alternative grains are being increasingly consumed by wealthy people, whereas the communities that traditionally consumed them are now increasingly eating wheat, maize, and rice products. Logically, we should be working to expand the role of alternative grains as staple foods across the world, especially in hot, arid regions.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: Assuming that there is a lucid next for me in this life (not something one should take for granted), this year I am going to be part of a team advising the South African government’s Department of Science and Innovation on opportunities for our local sorghum industry. I am also psyching myself up to edit another book, this one on strategies to combat micronutrient malnutrition. Last, and not least, I am trying to “practice what I preach” by applying my food science and technology to help entrepreneurs to produce better convenience-type food products.