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Two times more with two times less, The ambition of Wageningen University and Research Centre

Published: 03-02-2014

Hence, food production needs to be increased, while at the same time, the environmental impact needs to be reduced. The development of systems that produce more food while using less land, water, energy, nutrients (especially phosphorus), and chemicals is a major scientific challenge. Wageningen UR accepted this challenge. “Our ambition is two times more with two times less by 2050,” says Timmermans. “Thus, the sustainability of our food chains should be radically improved.”

Sustainable development is a “catch-all” concept that can be divided into numerous themes, including smart energy use, reduction of CO2 production, efficient water use, residual use of materials, reduction of food wastage, and a transition to more sustainable protein production and consumption. While Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research is involved with many different areas of sustainability, it has a strong focus on two main objectives: at least doubling the protein supply and increasing the efficiency of the conversion of raw materials into products, while simultaneously reducing the ecological footprint.

Sustainable protein foods—part of tomorrow’s menu
Ensuring a sustainable, high-quality protein supply requires the identification and the use of new protein sources, like insects, algae, and plant materials. It also requires innovative product development with these new protein materials.
Various parts of Wageningen UR are addressing this topic with different approaches — with only a few examples mentioned here. Sustainable horticultural crop production systems are being studied at Plant Research International. At the Department of Bioprocess Engineering, physicochemical properties of proteins isolated from microalgae are being explored. Together with the University of Utrecht, the University of Wageningen is also researching the use of cultured meat (originating from stem cells) as a more sustainable, climate- and animal-friendly alternative to regular meat. In this project, the in vitro culturing activities take place at Utrecht, while the ethical and societal aspects of cultured meat are studied at Wageningen. However, there is still a long way to go before actual product development commences.

Wageningen University has established a unique academic “chair” in meat replacers, to which professor Remko Boom was recently appointed. In addition, Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research is carrying out a number of interesting projects focusing on sustainable protein production. Timmermans reports on several examples. “In conjunction with the innovation company TOP B.V., our institute developed technology concerning texturization of plant-based proteins. This successful collaboration on plant-based protein provided a solid foundation for the establishment of the innovation company Ojah B.V.” (See Small Bites: Plenti® alternatives for meat and fish)  In another project, the potential of insects as a future source of protein for human consumption is also under study. “Together with Venik — the Dutch organization for insect growers — we are investigating a sustainable production method for insects, using waste streams from the agrofood industry as feed material,” says Timmermans. Furthermore, we are searching for an optimal isolation process for the protein fractions. And of course, we are studying functional properties of insect proteins and their application in food products as well.”

Transitioning to the more sustainable production and consumption of proteins is not only about technology. “Consumer acceptance is key,” explains Timmermans, adding that this type of consumer science also is carried out at Wageningen. The “Restaurant of the Future,” comprised of a company restaurant and a laboratory, offers a unique venue in this respect. Researchers can implement study designs involving, among other things, consumer behavior, food choice, food design, taste, and packaging. The Restaurant of the Future offers companies of all sizes an opportunity to field-test their newest (prototype) products or ingredients, new preparation methods, equipment, and a way to explore many other research questions involving real consumers in a realistic setting.

Preventing food wastage and optimizing the use of agrofood materials
Spoilage in the food chain and less than optimal use of raw materials has resulted in significant  inefficiencies in both the conversion of biomass resources and fossil energy into digestible energy, as well as in the production of bio-based materials. In the Netherlands alone, €2 billion worth of food and food ingredients is wasted annually in the food chain; during harvesting or processing, upon storage, and in retail distribution. Consumers throw away even more. Timmermans believes that a reduction in wastage of at least 40% is ultimately possible, and is applying a programmatic approach, involving multidisciplinary project teams, to help to achieve this goal.
One example of this approach involves a collaboration with the Salvation Army. The project’s goal was to achieve an optimal match between the “input” and “output” needed for the thousands of meals that the Army provides each day. Qualitatively good surplus food from the food industry is being used for this purpose. “Our activities in this project consisted of chain analysis: What does the chain look like?” Timmermans explains.  “Furthermore, we made an inventory of potential surplus or residual streams. And through modeling and practice, we were able to match the demand and the supply side. A positive side feature of this project was the increased employment opportunities. In this way, the Army also helped to restore people’s independence.”

Agricultural production gives rise to agro-residuals: by-products that were traditionally considered waste. Processing of these residuals, however, results in materials that create an alternative source of income and that reduce the costs of waste disposal. This also makes sense from an environmental point of view. Timmermans explains: “Examples of by-products that can be used are stalks from corn and sugar cane, straws from wheat, rice, or barley, leaves from sugar beets, as well as grass and coconut fibers. Applications include textiles, bio-plastics, and paper and pulp.”

Food technology and logistics
A product with better quality or an improved shelf life, which comes as a result of alternative processing or preservation techniques, may reduce food wastage while simultaneously lowering the costs of distribution, as well as minimizing energy usage during processing and transport. Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research has extensive expertise in the field of novel food processing technologies. Volumetric heating, i.e. heating via microwave or radiofrequency, often proves to be an excellent alternative to traditional surface heating because it prevents overtreatment, which typically results in overheating. Non-thermal, mild processing technologies like high-pressure pasteurization (HPP), high-pressure sterilization (HPS), pulsed electric field (PEF) processing, and cold plasma techniques also turn out to be more cost-efficient and sustainable techniques with which to process raw materials into high-quality products. Most of the fresh characteristics of the products are retained and shelf life is enhanced.

Combinations of technical innovations and optimized logistics offer a more holistic approach to the supply chain. Timmermans says, “We go beyond traditional logistics management practices by integrating into our research approach knowledge about fresh product quality changes and technological developments.” Decision support models and tools are built in order to improve the supply chain performance. Each section of the supply chain has an important influence on the overall outcome. So, for instance, combinations of transport solutions, packaging issues, storage conditions, information flow, waste management, quality checks, and stock ordering and preservation techniques are studied. “Optimizing at the link and chain level results in more cost-effective and sustainable chains,” says Timmermans. “For example, products with specific quality features can be assigned to designated processes and specific market segments. This results in improved performance (less waste, higher efficiencies, etc.) and increased added value.” Timmermans concludes with the impressive results of a project called “Quest,” which is an abbreviation for “Quality and Energy Efficiency in Storage and Transport of agro-materials.” Timmermans proudly reports, “A revolutionary way of cooling perishable products like fruits and vegetables during reefer container transport results in energy savings of 50% without affecting product quality.”
Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research developed this energy-saving software tool in partnership with Maersk Line and Carrier Transicold. It differs from the traditional way of cooling in that the container is now cooled based on the actual needs of the product, so that different temperature settings have been established for various product classes. Since its introduction, “Quest” has been implemented by Maersk and other shipping lines in their reefer fleets. Maersk Line’s yearly CO2 emission has been reduced by at least 380,000 tons. Such savings are comparable to the CO2 emission of 1.43 billion car miles, or the effect of replacing 1.9 million light bulbs with power saving lamps. An enormous effect!

Contact details:
Toine Timmermans,
Program Manager Sustainable Food Chains,
Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research
Email: toine.timmermans@wur.nl
Website: www.fbr.wur.nl/UK/Research+fields/Programmes/ SustainableFoodChains/

Wageningen Food & Biobase Research