Innovations in the circular economy; closing the loop in food production: breakfast in Singapore with prof. Louise O. Fresco

Breakfast meeting with Louise O. Fresco, president of Wageningen University and Research

Today we are at the brink of great change. In a turbulent world, our traditional linear ways of thinking are challenged. We have a number of big issues to tackle. Feeding almost 10 billion people in 2050, for the largest part in metropolitan areas, while taking good care of scare resources can only be done in circular approaches. Professor Louise O. Fresco, president of Wageningen University and Research, shared her vision over breakfast during a network meeting organized by ADB DutchCham, Food Industry Asia and the Netherlands Embassy.

Louise O. Fresco

Breakfast meeting on circular economy

This year, 2018, is the year that Wageningen University and Research (WUR) celebrates its 100 years anniversary. WUR started off as an agricultural university and is now looking more holistically into urban systems. Foundations of the ways of working that make WUR successful are a firm belief in science-based approaches and many longtime partnerships. An example of science-based approaches is the contribution of WUR to biological control using natural ecological methods. As a result of WUR’s research, pesticide use in some crops dropped to only 20% of previous use. The partnerships WUR treasures are both with larger and smaller companies, as well as with individuals, NGOs and authorities.

Speaking of the science-based approaches, Professor Fresco highlights that with the upcoming changes, we need to be prepared to invest in innovation and so-called living labs. They may not automatically be a success but allow to draw lessons from (partial) failures. For instance, in preparing for a post-fossil world, we need to think about substitutes both in terms of energy and in terms of biochemistry. Biofuels are a good example, although they do offer an alternative to fossil fuel, the conversion of land crop to produce energy is not a good use of resource and only works with subsidies. Yet biomass and the end of a “cascading” pipeline of a circular economy can contribute to the energy mix, next to saving energy.

Water and waste

Much progress has been made in water and waste water treatment; waste water streams from industry and households are in majority still discharged into sea or surface waters. In a multiple step cleaning process, we’re able to retrieve most essential components, like enzymes and lipids and minerals as well as N, P and K. What is left is water that can be used for toilet flushing. We have to start thinking of installing dual water streams, for drinking water and for semi clean water. We will have to be more selective in the type of water we use for which purpose and use waste or brackish water where possible. Moreover, drinking water quality is not always necessary for peri-urban food production, but care should still be taken of food safety aspects.

Food waste reduction is high on the list of topics to address. Per capita about 50 kg of food is wasted per year, but this can be as high as 150kg in some countries. In Europe food waste alone is equivalent to 8% of greenhouse gasses. Animals and especially insects can play an important role in this part of the chain, by turning food waste into edible proteins. It is not likely that these insects will be for human consumption. They can serve as feed for fish and poultry. This is a good start of a circular model. If you see animals as converters, they can help us with discarded food and even offal from slaughter houses. Animals are a necessary step in a circular economy and meat will remain part of a healthy diet. Meat provides proteins and iron, which is especially important to for instance children and pregnant women. Moderation of the amounts of meat consumed will be important. Professor Fresco stresses that it is recommendable not have the full circular approach at an operational level right from the start. You can leave some gaps and bridge those step by step.

Consumer behavior

Prevention of waste is as important as dealing with waste. One could think of using legislation to manage consumer behavior. How do we control what we waste? Chips on garbage bags probably go too far, but more control is very likely to emerge over time. For instance, in the municipality of Wageningen twelve types of waste streams are collected. Citizens have electronic access to be able to throw away waste. In general the basis of regulation will be the principle “the polluter pays”. On the other hand, it goes without saying that prevention of waste is best way. An important reason for many good quality products to be wasted is the high quality acceptance standards by supermarkets. Initiatives like Kromkommer (a soup producer that used only deformed or excess produce) and the opening of supermarket shelves last week with only products that otherwise would have gone to waste are good examples how these streams can be valorized.  Something else we can do is planning of surplus waste caused by seasonality, like tomatoes. Good planning and for instance block chain technology could help to optimize the use of seasonal surplus.

Technology

Growing food, especially horticultural crops, in buildings is more productive than open field production. In basements, inside and on top of buildings technologies with LED and closed cycles such as aquaponics are highly productive. We achieved 18x less water use to grow 65-80kg per m2 of tomatoes. Cycles could also include poultry production. We have steered away from poultry in densely built-up areas because of the avian influenza scares. With the help of very sensitive sensors that can detect fever, flu can be signaled early and controlled in a very early stage. When working with well-closed off facilities, poultry production could be reintroduced in cities. An additional benefit of poultry is its very efficient in conversion ratio. However, it looks like to conversion ratios of fish will soon exceed those of poultry. An shift towards more fish can be expected. This phenomenon is a part of “blue growth” which also includes the integrated development of coastal and marine areas. Fish can be fed both animal and terrestrial waste, which makes their potential in Singapore and other large cities great. And even fish farms could do more; if they were to include algae farming, they could produce raw materials for other types of farming.

Food supply in metropolitan areas

Professor Fresco’s ideas on how food supply in cities is likely to be organized in the future is as follows: we will obtain the bulk of our calories, our staple foods, from outside of the city. Rice, wheat, maize and the like are less suitable for indoor growth. The transportation of these bulk products into the city will be a problem, though. Our fresh products, such a vegetables, fish and poultry will be farmed close by, or inside cities. This implies a mixed supply chain model. Pork needs more space and will be farmed outside of the more densely populated areas. Cows are ideal for grasslands in rural areas that are less or not suitable for growing crops. Within the cities, distribution and packaging are key. We are not able to eradicate the use of plastics, as they help to preserve quality but plastics must be biodegradable and plastic streams separated. An example is a cucumber in plastic, that stays fresh for two more weeks than without a plastic wrapping. Glass bottles are good alternatives, but the return stream has proven to be difficult to organize. While we could ask ourselves whether the metropolitan areas are impossible to manage, with the technical challenges, legal, fiscal, regulatory, consumer behavior, and so on. At the same time if we just get started and adopt technology and evidence based techniques, the future looks quite bright. Digitalization is going to be of tremendous help.

Q&A:

Q: How do we deal with consumer perception, especially with respect to GMO’s? Lots of technologies are hampered in application because the general public fears the consequences.

A: Evidence leads progress. Yes, clearly especially in Europe consumers are hesitant to change, fed by a fear of danger. An example of a technology WUR hopes to develop further is CRISPR-CAS. This could help to overcome the stalemate around GMO. This technology is far more precise and does not need to lead to GMO. For example, the nutritional quality such as the antioxidant level in tomatoes can naturally be increased by activating a dormant gene.

Q: Were tomatoes 20 years ago more nutritious?

A: There is often an idealized picture farming and produce from "the old days". There are no clear differences in the nutrition profile of tomatoes today and back then. On the other hand, the time the Dutch were known by the Germans for their “Wasserbomben” (big, tasteless tomatoes) is over. The Netherlands now grows a wide variety of high quality tomatoes. Taste is mainly dependent on variety, quick transportation and adequate storage.

Q: Can strawberries as we know them in the Netherlands be produced using LED?

A: In a while, probably. Not sure about the state of the research on strawberries.

Q: What should Singapore do to become circular? Where should we start?

A: It would be good to create a roadmap. You will need a decision on political level. At the same time it is important to also educate children in their thinking. Don’t wait till they’re old enough for university. For the roadmap, an analysis of the current bottlenecks is needed, then the various steps need to be mapped and phased. You will see that there are probably 5 or 6 priorities. Singapore is good at long term planning, which helps a lot. Start trying…! An important addition is that a circular system should not depend on subsidies. Circularity only works if it is a sound business case.

Q: Intake and overconsumption of calories; what is your take on this issue?

A: In evolutionary terms it is probably a temporary imbalance. Obesity is most prevalent in countries that move fast from a rural to an urban setting. Professor Fresco does not see an answer in government regulation and taxes. She would see a future solution in having a chip that tells you what to take nutrient-wise. The chip may communicate with your fridge and grocery store. She also realizes it sometimes is also an availability issue, where in some (postal code) areas there is no access to fresh food. These areas are known as food deserts. In balancing the satiety and calorie intake, fibers have a key role to play.