Green food processing technologies contribute to a more sustainable agri-food chain

Energy efficiency in food processing technologies is instrumental in solving the global energy efficiency challenge. Industrial food processing technologies need to embrace the cleantech revolution to reduce their carbon footprint and contribute to a more sustainable (and viable) world.

With an expected world population of ~9.8bn by 2050 (~7.6bn today), the carbon impact of the agri-food industry will dramatically increase. Considering that developing countries, where food processing standards are still mainly impacted by sanitary regulations and progressively by environmental considerations, will represent ~98% of the ~2.1bn increase in global population growth, tackling such a concern appears even more pressing. As of 2016, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (“FAO”) estimated that 60% more food will need to be produced by 2050 to feed the world population.

Additionally, given that rural agriculture is among the biggest employer of poor people today, with 65% of poor adults working in the agriculture industry, and that the agriculture industry is 2 to 4 times more effective in raising incomes than other sectors, it appears even more evident to focus our efforts on this agri-food chain sustainability challenge.

 

The FAO started its “Energy-Smart” Food for People and Climate (“ESF”) programme in 2011, helping member countries to begin a transformation of their food chain aiming at: i) “relying more on low-carbon energy systems and using energy more efficiently”, ii) “strengthening the role of renewable energy within food systems” and iii) “providing greater access to modern energy services for development, and at the same time supporting the achievement of national food security and sustainable development goals”. However, if this initiative fosters member countries to strengthen public policies for the sectors related to the agri-food industry, the private sector needs to weight in to accelerate the implementation of a comprehensive sustainable agri-food chain.

The FAO has been compiling data on how the food industry is improving its energy consumption. Food systems currently consume 30% of the world’s available energy, of which ~70% is beyond the farm gate. Greenhouse gas emissions (“GHG”) from the agri-food chain represent slightly more than 20% of global GHG emissions annually with countries such as China, India, Brazil, USA, Indonesia, Pakistan, Australia, Ethiopia, Russia, Mexico, and Bangladesh representing 58% of total agricultural GHG emissions in 2014.

Variations in shares of the 3 main gases along the agri-food chain

Variations in shares of the 3 main gases along the agri-food chain

Source: FAO/USAID, 2015. Based on data from: IPCC, 2014 and FAO, 2011

Tremendous potential savings lie all along the agri-food chain from inputs (seed, irrigation/pumping, livestock feed, fertilizer) to the end-user (cooking, transport, household appliances) and including production (on-farm mechanization, increased operational efficiencies), transport (from farm to collection center and from collection center to processing facility/market), storage & handling (cold storage, moisture control, mechanized sorting/packaging), value added processing (e.g. drying, grinding, milling, etc.), transport & logistics (warehouse, road, rail and maritime transport), as well as marketing & distribution (packaging, retail locations and refrigeration).

Countless technologies and innovations can foster a more energy and resource efficient agri-food chain, and renewable energy sources can further improve the sector’s carbon footprint. These include but are not limited to solar irrigation, wind water pumping, solar/bioenergy drying and heating, solar food processing, evaporative cooling, solar absorption cooling, geothermal heating, optimizing fertilizer use, conservation agriculture, drip irrigation and precision agriculture.

 

Compadre, a Peruvian startup providing a solar driven technology to roast coffee beans, is a notable example of the potential of energy savings within the broad food processing industry. The company built a coffee bean roster using sunrays reflected by a Scheffler-type parabolic solar concentrator toward one focal point: the drum (see left picture below). Thus, such technology allows the farmer to roast 1kg of organic green coffee beans in 15-25 minutes, which is fairly in line with more conventional roasting equipment of similar dimensions. Solar panels generate electricity which is stored in a battery and powers the drum’s rotation system to ensure an even roasting process (see right picture below). The stored electricity can also substitute sunrays on cloudy days, making the technology more reliable despite changes in weather conditions.

Compadre pictures selected for the published article

Additionally, Compadre also enables farmers it works with to sell their organic green coffee beans at a significantly higher price than other traditional buyers would be willing to pay for. Indeed, Compadre pays members of its supply network at a price 55% to 136% higher than the market price for organic green coffee beans[1]. The company currently works with 6 farmer families but could increase its network to 11 families by the end of 2018. In terms of market positioning, Compadre offers a competitively priced organic coffee with a price tag of S/25 per 250 grams versus a S/18-32 range for competing organic coffees.

Compadre is currently working on increasing the roasting capacity of its machine by increasing the size of its parabolic mirror to more than double the output of roasted coffee beans in volume terms (i.e. ~2.5kgs of beans roasted per 15-25 mins cycle). Improving the current technology will also enable Compadre to roast 100% of its organic coffee it sells with solar energy. Nowadays, ~60% of the company’s sales consist of coffee beans 100% roasted with solar energy. Finally, Compadre is exploring opportunities to sell its products in Europe in the near to medium term, expanding its market way beyond Peru.

 

Various startups are improving the energy efficiency at other stages of the agri-food chain. Soliculture is a California-based startup which developed LUMO solar panels designed for greenhouses. These turn solar green light into a red light, maximizing both power generation and crop growth. Evaptainers is also another great example of new technology achievement within the agri-food chain. The company provides an evaporative cooling technology to the developing world food industry which requires no electricity, consumes only 1L of water per day on average, can store up to 60L of perishable products, and cooling them at 15-20 degrees Celsius below the ambient temperature. Houston-based Grubtubs identified a flaw in the one-way farm to table supply chain and aims at repurposing food waste coming from retailers and restaurants into nutrient-rich animal feed affordable for local farmers. Startups like Ynsect, Aspire Food Group, Flying SpArk and Chapul use large scale insect harvesting techniques to feed animals and humans, representing significant potential reduction of GHG emissions according to the FAO. Other startups are also fostering unprecedented changes in consumer habits to reduce their meat consumption’s carbon footprint. Companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat both developed plant-based substitutes to meat.

Technologies are being developed and improved all along the agri-food chain, with the potential of bringing current GHG emissions to a sustainable level. Public policies in many countries are being way too shy to foster the changes we need in this industry, including recent France’s unambitious agriculture and food legislative proposal. Investors’ capital, entrepreneurs’ ideas and the civil society consumption behaviors need to lead disruption within the agri-food chain.

 

[1] Based on management estimates and a market price of S/5-6 per kilo of green organic coffee beans

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