Meeting water and energy challenges in agri-food sector with technology

Meeting water and energy challenges in agri-food sector with technology

Article by Wayne Visser

Part of the Sustainable Innovation & Technology series for The Guardian.

Innovations in sugar cane processing to reduce water use and produce energy will help to meet future agricultural product demands

Worldwide, the overall growth in demand for agricultural products will require a 140% increase in the supply of water over the next 20 years compared to the past 20 years. While the bulk of this demand will be from irrigation, food processing plants can also be water intensive. So, any technological innovations in the industry that save water are welcome.

One such innovation is by Mars Petcare, which has developed a recirculation system that reduces the potable water used for cooling in its pet food production process by 95%. Wastewater is also down by 95% and gas by 35% through the use of a treatment method that keeps the water microbiologically stable.

In Brazil, water used in sugar cane processing has gone down from 5.6 to 1.83 cubic metres (m3) per tonne in recent years, due to improved technologies and practices in waste water treatment.

Further reductions can be made by replacing the standard wet cane washing process with a new technique of dry cane washing. Costa Rican company Azucarera El Viejo SA has found that this switch has resulted in more than 6m gallons of water being saved each day during the harvest season, netting savings of approximately $54,000 (£32,000).

Of course, in food processing, it is not only volume of water that is important, but also the quality of water effluent associated with the manufacturing process. In Brazil, sugar cane is partly processed into ethanol. Vinasse is a byproduct of this process that pollutes water. Technological innovation shows that, while in Brazil emissions of 10-12 litres of vinasse per litre of ethanol are standard, levels of 6 litres can be achieved.

Other examples of innovative water quality solutions in the agri-foods sector are Briter-Water, which has been piloted in the EU and uses intensified bamboo-based phytoremediation for treating dairy and other food industry effluent; and the Vertical Green Biobed, developed by HEPIA, a school from the University of Applied Sciences of western Switzerland, to improve water treatment of agricultural effluents.

Generating energy from agricultural waste

Besides water issues, agriculture is also very energy intensive, accounting for 7% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to 2010 figures. Even carbon emissions associated only with direct energy use by the sector stand at 1.4% of the world’s total. Energy efficiency technologies will certainly help, but there is an equally big innovation opportunity in generating energy from agricultural waste.

It is estimated that the global biofuels market could double to $185.3bn (£110.5) by 2021 and that next generation sugar cane bagasse-to-biofuels technologies could expand ethanol production in key markets like Brazil and India by 35% without land or water intensification. Experiences in this rapidly growing industry suggest some lessons which can be applied to sustainable technology innovation more generally.

Lesson 1: technologies must be ready-for-market

There are always competing technological solutions at the Research and Development (R&D) phase, but a critical test is which ones are ready to scale commercially. In the case of cellulosic biofuel technologies, despite early research into wheat straw and corn stover, sugar cane biomass ended up being more commercially attractive to big investors like Blue Sugars, Novozymes, Iogen, Beta Renewables, DSM and Codexis.

Lesson 2: partnership is critical for success

There have been few standalone projects announced. Instead, technology companies from the US and the EU have generally teamed up with large aggregators of bagasse like Raizen and Petrobras. Apart from technology transfer benefits, access to already-aggregated bagasse is economically essential.

Lesson 3: policy support and market demand attract investment

Brazil is especially attractive as a technology transfer destination due to a combination of policy certainty and strong ethanol demand. This combination is also stimulating parallel next generation biofuels. Most notably GraalBio and Praj have significant projects targeting other feedstocks such as straw.

Investment in biofuels can also generate significant economic value for agri-food processors. During the sugar cane harvest, the left over fibre is burned and converted into energy via bagasse-to-biogas production. During the 2011-12 harvest, approximately 38m kWh of energy derived from bagasse-to-biogas production was sold by Azucarera El Viejo to the Costa Rican Electricity Institute, bringing over $3m (£1.79m) of income to the company.

In Nepal, the Biogas Support programme installed over 250,000 domestic biogas plants in rural households between 1992 and 2011, using cattle manure to provide biogas for cooking and lighting, replacing traditional energy sources such as fuel wood, agricultural residue and dung. Besides health benefits from less indoor smoke, the project has cut 625,000t of CO2.

And in Rwanda, there is a proposal – yet to be approved and implemented – for two biofuels companies, Eco-fuels Global and Eco Positive, to invest $250m (£149m) and grow 120m jatropha trees, helping to make Rwanda self-reliant in biodiesel by 2025 and bringing jobs to 122 small oilseed-producing cooperatives with over 12,000 members.

 

Download

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/article_sustech3_wvisser.pdf”]Pdf[/button] Meeting water and energy challenges in agri-food sector with technology (article)

Related websites

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/books/the-quest-for-sustainable-business”]Link[/button] The Quest for Sustainable Business (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.kaleidoscopefutures.com”]Link[/button] Kaleidoscope Futures (website)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.csrinternational.org”]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

Cite this article

Visser, W. (2014) Meeting water and energy challenges in agri-food sector with technology. The Guardian, 13 August 2014.

Share this page

Share

Tackling the food waste challenge with technology

Tackling the food waste challenge with technology

Article by Wayne Visser

Part of the Sustainable Innovation & Technology series for The Guardian.

Innovation in packaging and refrigeration can reduce waste – as can changes in behaviour.

The challenges of the 21st century will stretch our collective capacity for innovation like never before.

Take food security. Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is first to find 175-220m hectares of additional cropland by 2030; second, to increase total food production by about 70% by 2050, mostly through improving crop yields; and third, to achieve all this without damaging the land, poisoning ourselves or impairing the health of our finite and already fragile ecosystems.

The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimates that meeting this challenge will require investment in developing countries’ agriculture of $9.2tn (£5.4tn) over the next 44 years – about $210bn (£123bn) a year (PDF) – from both private and public sources. Just under half of this amount will need to go into primary agriculture, and the rest into food processing, transportation, storage and other downstream activities. A priority will be finding ways to close the gaps between crop yields in developed and developing countries, which are around 40%, 75%, and 30-200% less in developing countries for wheat, rice and maize, respectively (PDF) – all while using fewer resources and less harmful substances.

This challenge is hard enough, but we also have to tackle the problem of 1.3bn tonnes of food wasted every year (PDF) – roughly a third of all food produced for human consumption. Fortunately, this is an area where technology can play a strong role, and where the economic, human and environmental benefits are compelling. An assessment of resource productivity opportunities between now and 2030 suggests that reducing food waste could return $252bn (£148bn) in savings, the third largest of all resource efficiency opportunities identified by a McKinsey study.

Reducing food waste through improved packaging

Although food waste is highest in Europe and North America (PDF), it is also a problem in developing regions like sub-Saharan Africa and south and south-east Asia.

According to the FAO, the total value of lost food is $4bn per year in Africa and $4.5bn a year in India, with up to 50% of fruit and vegetables ending up as waste. In developing countries including China and Vietnam, most food is lost through poor handling, storage and spoilage in distribution. It is estimated that 45% of rice in China and 80% in Vietnam (PDF) never make it to market for these reasons.

One of the most effective ways to reduce food waste is to improve packaging, for example by using Modified Atmosphere Packaging (Map) – a technology that substitutes the atmosphere inside a package with a protective gas mix, typically a combination of oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitrogen – to extend freshness.

This is a well-proven solution that calls for technology transfer rather than invention, which has been the approach of the Sustainable Product Innovation Project in Vietnam. Through the project, Map has been applied to over 1,000 small-scale farmers, resulting in reductions in post-harvest food waste from 30-40% to 15-20%.

Another simple packaging solution being promoted in developing countries is the International Rice Research Institute Super Bag. When properly sealed, the bag cuts oxygen levels from 21% to 5%, reducing live insects to fewer than one insect per kg of grain without using insecticides – often within 10 days of sealing. This extends the germination life of seeds from 6 to 12 months and controls insect grain pests (without using chemicals).

Improved storage and transportation

Besides improved packaging, a second way to reduce food loss and waste is through improved storage and transportation. A new report on creating a sustainable “cold chain” in the developing world estimates that about 25-50% of food wastage (PDF) could be eliminated with better, more climate friendly refrigeration. For example, Unilever has committed to using hydrocarbon (HC) refrigerants, which saved 40,000 tonnes of CO2 in 2013.

Waste into energy

Finally, even when food waste cannot be eliminated, its impacts can still be reduced, or even converted into benefits. For instance, animal by-products from slaughterhouses that are usually incinerated or disposed of in landfills can be treated by a new technology called the APRE process (PDF), which can treat 11 tonnes of dead animals every day, producing 4,000 metres cubed of bio-gas (60% of which is methane) and 44 tonnes of liquid fertiliser. The heat generated can be turned into electricity to be used in production or sold on.

As we can see, many technological solutions to agri-food waste already exist and only need to be more effectively shared and affordably adapted to local contexts. However, as always, technology is only part of the answer – something that Paris retailer Intermarché creatively, humorously and profitably demonstrates with its recent Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables campaign, which discounts and celebrates fresh food that does not comply with EU size and colour restrictions and would otherwise have been dumped.

The sustainability revolution is as much about changing perceptions, attitudes and behaviours – the software – as about changing the technology.

 

Download

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/article_sustech2_wvisser.pdf”]Pdf[/button] Tackling the food waste challenge with technology (article)

Related websites

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/books/the-quest-for-sustainable-business”]Link[/button] The Quest for Sustainable Business (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.csrinternational.org”]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

Cite this article

Visser, W. (2014) How to use technology to make our planet more sustainable, not less. The Guardian, 29 July 2014.

Share this page

Share