Did you know that currently, our food system is responsible for about one quarter of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions? And that almost one third of all the food we produce ends up lost or thrown away? These numbers are mind-boggling; and even more concerning in light of a growing global population. It’s clear that we have to radically change the way we grow and raise all the plants, animals and animal products we eat. We also have to take a good look at the organic waste accumulating at every step of the supply chain; and reimagine more circular scenes at the table, in the supermarket, and on the farm. What can designers do to contribute solutions?
This is one of many questions raised in the open call of the WDCD No Waste Challenge, a global competition seeking fresh ideas to reduce the impact of waste on climate change. Supporting us in this effort with their expansive knowledge in the field of food innovation, is Foodvalley NL. Since 2004, Foodvalley NL has been developing the Foodvalley ecosystem; an international community of more than 200 organizations and companies who jointly work on the transition to a sustainable food system.
Leading their Circular Agrifood programme is Paula Rijkens, who describes her ideal food future as one ‘with no organic waste.’ Last week, we sat down with Paula to discuss whether this is really possible (her answer: ‘Absolutely’) and the most inspiring ideas currently being cultivated in the Foodvalley network. Below, we pick out six cases in particular that show the exciting opportunities available to innovators looking to reduce waste in the agrifood industry.
The Dutch are mad about coffee. On average, they drink up to four cups a day. That makes for a lot of coffee waste, something which caught the eye of media entrepreneur Jan Willem Bosman Jansen. In 2011, he founded Gro Mushrooms with the goal of transforming residual waste from your coffee cup, into a valuable agricultural resource. Now Gro collects coffee grounds from a growing network of partners in the Netherlands, and uses them to grow oyster mushrooms, which they then process into delicious, plant-based snacks and burgers.
‘What I like about this project is that they work from a totally different business, making new connections throughout the whole supply chain. They go from the consumer, to the agricultural sector, the growers of mushrooms, to the food processors, and back to the consumer,’ says Paula. ‘They’ve created a long cycle in which the whole supply chain can benefit.’ And by eating more mushrooms, we also reduce our consumption of animal proteins.
Working from a similar starting point is the hugely successful Peelpioneers. This Dutch initiative is focused on processing the waste stream from orange juicing stations all over the country, which would otherwise be incinerated or dumped. They opened the world’s first orange peel factory in 2018, where every year more than 10 million kilos of peels are transformed into functional ingredients for the food and cosmetics industry. According to the team, nothing is wasted—even the pulp that remains after their production process goes to farmers for use as animal feed.
Paula sees this project as pivotal for the market, proving that circular startups can be economically viable. She describes how in just a few years, Peelpioneers have collected some 13 million euros in investment. ‘This means that they already have a positive return on investment. They show that they can make profit,’ she says, and this is noteworthy, because ‘a lot of people think food innovation is still in its early stages, and that it’s still only based on government funding.’
In Israel, another member of the Foodvalley ecosystem is exploring better ways to deal with the harmful byproducts of the beer and wine industry. The team behind Nutrilees discovered that waste from alcohol fermentation processes can be damaging to soil health if not disposed of correctly. They also found that these bottom-of-the-barrel residues were loaded with proteins, minerals and dietary fibers. With the help of chefs and scientists, they have since fine-tuned a process that allows them to upcycle this waste into a versatile and nutritious superfood powder.
Today, Nutrilees are looking forward to increasing their impact and finding broader applications for their award-winning ingredient. ‘A total of about 30 to 35% of grapes used in wineries end up as waste,’ explains Yaki Karel, Nutrilees’ CEO. ‘In percentage terms, having 30% of your raw material turn into waste is a tremendous downside and being able to reuse some or even all of it could have a huge impact on [the wine industry’s] carbon footprint.’
Away from industrial waste streams, there are interesting opportunities to be found in tackling consumer behaviour. After all, sustainable farming is nothing without sustainable eating — and Paula is keen to remind us of the importance of visual media and storytelling in making this shift happen. One project making great work in this field is Green Food Lab, a consultancy and communications agency focused on creating ‘the right words and images to accelerate the route to a more plant-based food market.’ Based on this vision, they help food companies capture the imaginations of the public, from designing content to campaigns, to developing recipes, and defining PR and positioning. Some of their most well-known initiatives include the National Week Without Meat, and De Hippe Vegetariër, which has become the largest vegetarian platform in the Netherlands with over 300,000 unique visitors per month. More recently, they’ve also partnered with big market players like KFC and Maggi to develop and promote an interest in plant-based products.
As we’ve seen so far, some of the best ideas start from a deep understanding of the local context. Just because we all eat food, doesn’t mean we all need the same solutions. In some parts of the world, reducing agricultural waste goes hand in hand with addressing resource depletion. In Uganda for example, wood is becoming scarce due to deforestation. Because more than 90% of households there rely on firewood for cooking, finding more sustainable alternatives is key to preserving the remaining forests and wildlife.
In 2017, The Green Elephant started growing elephant grass as an alternative form of bio-fuel. Since this fast-growing plant absorbs CO2 and enriches poor soil, it does not compete with agricultural land. The grass itself contains a lot of nutritional value, and the fibers can also be used to make high-quality animal feed, bio-plastics and paper. This project is a perfect example of how big-picture thinking can result in positive impact that’s also multi-layered: from providing an alternative to an inefficient timber industry to creating clean energy and boosting local economies.
Last but not least, we wanted to shout-out the emerging field of insects as food. Paula notes that this is an important industry which is currently expanding in almost every direction—legally, culturally, economically. The main reason it’s so exciting is not that it could replace the meat in your burger, but that it provides paths to truly circular agriculture. ‘First, insects can make supply chains shorter,’ explains Paula. They can also turn low-grade food waste into body mass quickly and sustainably. This means that they could be a great alternative to conventional animal feed, which is normally mixed with soy.
‘At Foodvalley we have on the one hand, a focus on supporting small, local, and circular short chains. This is where a handful of insect breeders start by collecting local supermarket waste streams, then bring their insects to local feed suppliers who mix it into the right meal for poultry and pigs, which is then used in local farms to deliver sustainable products to the same supermarket that supplied the initial waste stream,’ she explains. ‘On the other hand, we are also working on industrial new supply chains, with insect breeders who are upscaling their production, and connecting the most innovative companies, all with the passion to build a new market.’ A great example of a leader in this industry is Protix, an award-winning Dutch company which continues to make waves with their insect farming technologies.
‘Together we can make this market grow’
For creatives looking to develop innovations in food and agriculture, Paula has one golden piece of advice: Don’t just look at what waste streams are available. Also look at what the consumers want and need. Because it’s in the gap between the two where you’ll find opportunities ripe for impact.
‘The whole market started with a push. It started with: ‘We have a waste stream and we want to make something out of it’. But I think that the market is changing. The next step is for the request to come from the market—a pull instead of a push. Where are we going to find each other? That’s the interesting stage where we are in right now,’ she says.
This also brings her to a second important point: collaboration is key to circularity. If we want to eliminate waste from farm to fork, we have to share knowledge, connect different sectors, and treat food as part of a living ecosystem. ‘And it all starts with design,’ reminds Paula. ‘Because at the moment of design, you can make sure that every byproduct is useful somewhere else. So whatever was previously known as ‘waste’ will actually be something that creates value.’
To learn more about Foodvalley and how you can join their international community of innovators, visit Foodvalley.nl.
Top image: Nationale Week Zonder Vlees, campaign by Green Food Lab.
For more inspiring stories like this, follow the No Waste Challenge, a global competition presented by What Design Can Do and the IKEA Foundation. Innovators from around the world are invited to submit creative solutions to reduce waste and rethink our entire production and consumption cycle. The deadline for submissions is 20 April 2021.
LEARN MORE BY VISITING THE CHALLENGE PLATFORM >