Sonne Stroosnidjer, business development manager with Wageningen Food and Biobased Research; Sotiris Bantas, founder, president, and CEO of Centaur Analytics; and Jeff Daniel, products group president of Blueflux Power, a green energy company, discussed unprecedented waste of raw vegetable material, animal products, and livestock.
Stroosnidjer discussed a current crisis in the Netherlands due to widespread restaurant closures, and demand for French fries virtually zeroing out, collapsing the market overnight as restaurant shutdown orders bounded across the globe. Currently, there’s a one-million-ton mountain of unsold potatoes. While a public-private initiative addressing the situation is seeking possible alternative uses to prevent the harvest from going to waste, farmers are reluctant to break ground over the coming weeks as the next potato-planting season gets underway.
Still, whether the potatoes get used to create ethanol (helping to meet a high demand for hand sanitizer), as food for livestock, or to create biogas, none of these alternative uses are economically viable for the farmers when compared to food supply.
The Dutch “potato mountain” accentuates issues with just one domestic and international food supply chain. However, from this case emerged a mounting consumer awareness campaign, urging consumers, public, and private sectors to adopt a mindset supporting upcycling initiatives in the future.
“During a ‘National Potato Rescue Day,’ [which was made official by proclamation on June 27] we were able to sell 100,000 kilos of potatoes, which was about .01% of the total stockpile,” Stroosnidjer said. “It was a good way to create public awareness about the problem at hand, but didn’t contribute to a large-scale solution.”
Stroosnidjer said the crisis helped stakeholders and the public conceptualize that “we focus too much on costs instead of value, on mitigating risks instead of seeing opportunities, and on distributing things in a linear way rather than a circular way.”
However, in crises such as the “potato mountain” in the Netherlands, public, governmental, and private demand for a more resilient food structure is not where it needs to be for all stakeholders in the industry to profit from upcycling waste.
Much of it, she said, has to do with a lack of incentives that allow farmers to find the most suitable regenerative alternatives for their products.
“It’s not circular,” Stroosnidjer said. “In this case, if farmers can’t show that they left their produce at certain facilities such as biogas incinerators, they won’t receive compensation from the government, so there’s no incentive to look for other viable, sustainable resources. I think that policy needs to be more flexible, because companies and entrepreneurs won’t be invited into the conversation if we have a perverse incentive structure. There needs to be a master plan and a direction for this.”
As new data collection methods come online, analytics will be a cornerstone of waste reduction and renewable strategies, Sotiris Bantas of Centaur Analytics, said.
“Ultimately, farmers aren’t handling these supply chain disruptions, and the prices are being borne by taxpayers,” Bantas said. “Our system is geared for high throughput in a singular direction, and we haven’t engineered it to tolerate changes in course, and we need to fix the broken supply chain before another COVID-19 happens.”
Certain segments of the supply chain have a glaring lack of transparent information and data compared to others, Bantas said. Being able to analyze rivers of data in a more centralized way will help recoup, prevent, and mitigate waste by optimizing throughput depending on shelf lives, storage conditions, and environmental factors.
“Food and beverage companies should be able to choose a supplier based on supply demand, availability, and quality of supply,” Bantas said. “Analytics can enable food companies to make the right decisions, and consumers should have access to traceability so they can opt for, and possibly even pay a premium for, a process which is waste-efficient and resilient, is the product of a circular approach and infrastructure, and rewards those vendors and stakeholders who opt for eco-friendly practices.”
From Macro to Micro
Jeff Daniel of BlueFlux Power discussed the role that biomass materials may play in a localized approach to circular economies. Further, he believes that a less globalized supply chain structure will prove key to forming a more resilient, less wasteful supply in the years to come.
Daniel discussed a movement within municipal master planning known as “smart cities,” which are organized in such a way to incorporate autonomous transportation, eco-friendly architecture, innovations in heating and cooling systems, and viable circular economies.
Those involved in the smart cities movement believe that food production and cultivating biomass from food waste could be more successful if conducted at a more macro-level, through vertical farming and other small-scale operations which enable community members to access a more localized food supply.
“Global supply chains and Amazon are quite a big deal right now, and big box stores are less and less needed or even viable,” Daniel said. “These closures are creating underutilized real estate which can be used for aquaculture, vertical farming, and more.”
The philosophy of macro-agriculture and waste upcycling shares many parallels, purposefully or not, with the strategies that went into automobile assembly lines, Daniel said.
“The concept is to minimize waste by handling things one piece at a time to better identify problems,” Daniel said. “You can decide if you want to have quality issues with one item, or with a pile of items in which waste is hidden. The concept applies to local supply engineering, and breaking down the challenges that cause waste.”
Seeking out returns on investment in a circular food economy or waste mitigation isn’t something that many companies, regulatory bodies, or consumers consider a pressing goal today. He believes that “citizen consumers” ought to be informed by a transparent look at the costs and returns of localized versus globalized food systems, and that, in absence of local and regional policies subsidizing waste mitigation efforts, investors will have to accept serious risk in order to build a platform for circular food systems.
“People will take on big risks, and those who experience losses in this type of agriculture are being bankrupted,” Daniel said. “There will be an intriguing balance experienced by those brave enough to take on the process of trial and error, but I also think community leadership is necessary for this to be possible.”