Toine Timmermans: Today’s innovations are tomorrow’s necessities

Published: 28-07-2014

Providing long-term food and nutrition security needs a collective mind-shift, that extends the idea of less is more by adding the concept of more with less. This means that focusing on sustainable production growth must run parallel to changing our lifestyles and eating patterns.

Replacing some of the animal protein in our diet with other types of protein would reduce resource use and improve health. The same applies to food waste: the less we throw away, the more there is for human consumption.

I find it promising to see that the European market for sustainably-produced food products, including so-called meat replacers, is growing. Food waste is a critical global issue and we see an increasing number of manufacturers looking to integrate resource efficiency into their long-term business strategies.

Quality, shelf life and logistics
Nevertheless, I think many opportunities for making supply chains more sustainable remain – especially when it comes to improving quality, shelf life and logistics. The better we maintain, predict and communicate the quality and shelf life of fresh food the less waste there will be. This will require improved transparency and collaboration between partners across the supply chain.

 “There are many opportunities for making supply chains more sustainable, especially when it comes to improving quality, shelf life and logistics.”

At Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research we apply this broad approach, combining in-depth knowledge of every step in the supply chain, from raw materials through processing to end product and consumer lifestyle. We develop insights and technologies that support industries to make the right choices and to innovate responsibly and effectively. We partner in the creation and production of healthy and tasty foods, of trulysustainable food chains and in developing ‘green’ alternatives for those products that still depend on fossil fuels.

From meat alternatives to shelf life prediction
Some recent innovations include the development of a new generation of meat alternatives, extending the shelf life of fresh juices and proving that sea transport of flowers is a viable and sustainable alternative to transport by air. Another success story is the Pasteur sensor tag, developed in close collaboration with several partners in the semiconductor industries and clients in the food industry. This Food Valley Award-winning sensor tag predicts the shelf life of fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and flowers based on their pre-harvest quality and supplychain conditions. Food & Biobased Research is also working on (decision) models in the areas of value-added supply-chain development, resource efficiency and valorization of waste streams. Moreover, we are taking the lead in the European FUSIONS project – established as the first step in building an international framework for action to reduce food waste.

Our ambition for the coming years is to integrate and validate our decision-support models to improve efficiency and effectiveness in the supply chains of our partners and clients. We will create an international Centre of Excellence in Post-Harvest Technology, supported by the Dutch government and businesses, aimed at improving the quality and shelf life of fresh produce, directly after harvest, in emerging and developing countries. Other focus areas include information management and information technology – to increase transparency throughout the chain and a better understanding of consumer perception and behavior to support individuals in changing to more-healthy and sustainable life styles.

Major impact
I believe that the innovations of today will have major economic and societal impacts tomorrow. Within five years or so, supply chains will have become substantially more sustainable, with efficient use of energy and raw materials and reduced food waste. Online food shopping will become the norm, allowing for just-in-time-and-place delivery and tailor-made advice about domestic storage of fresh produce. Moreover, once we are able to predict and control the quality of fresh foods – enabling consistent high quality – consumers might increase their fruit and vegetable consumption, positively impacting health and sustainability.

Sustainability does not have an end-point; it is a continuous process of improvement. I believe for every company in the supply chain there are still many opportunities, responsibilities and challenges out there. Needing individual company attention as well as collaboration with supply chain partners.

Toine Timmermans, MSc: Program Manager Sustainable Food Chains at Wageningen UR and Theme Director Food Chain Sustainability and Dynamics at TI Food and Nutrition