Greening the food chain

26 April 2013

Responsible, sustainable sourcing and manufacturing of food is one of today’s industry mega-trends. Karin Nielsen of Canadean Ingredients reports on an abundance of global initiatives aimed at certifying and tracing the origins of food.

For general consumers, the value chain is long and difficult to follow, and food manufacturers spend a good deal of time checking the ethical and ecological credentials of ingredients. Feeding the world in a responsible way in order to preserve the planet's resources for future generations is top of the food industry agenda. Last year, a UN report concluded that, by 2030, the world will need at least 50% more food, 45% more energy and 30% more water.

Feeding the world responsibly

From farm to fork, there are many issues related to ingredients, covering everything from where the ingredient has been manufactured and delivered, through to consumer product manufacturing (see Figure 1, page 15).

A rough calculation using guideline daily allowance and age demographics as measurements, and based on feeding a human population that currently stands at just over seven billion, rising to nine billion in 30 years, confirms that we will face a huge demand for nutrients; approximately 120 million tonnes of protein, 205 million tonnes of fat and 660 million tonnes of carbohydrates.

On the ingredient supply side, major discussions are underway regarding
the benefits and drawbacks of feeding nutrients to animals before extracting them to feed humans, while topics hitting the headlines include the global methane gas load of farm animals, and fish and seafood farming near coastal areas.

"A UN report concluded that, by 2030, the world will need at least 50% more food."

In the botanical sector, meanwhile, there are concerns about biodiversity, as evidenced by the emergence of programmes such as Organics Brazil, Bonsucro and the Green Palm initiatives.

Consumers demand responsibility and hype healthy nutrition, but they are not always capable of understanding the implications for the environment, farmers or industry. Examples include krill oil -the demand for which has led to fishing activity in the pristine waters of the Antarctic - or quinoa farming in the Bolivian Andes, which is now spreading into wild areas and causing soil erosion. Acai planting in Brazil will hopefully provide a sustainable livelihood for subsistence harvesters without damaging the Amazon rainforest.

At present, there are several strategies being applied as ingredient companies endeavour to act responsibly on these issues.

Agriculture vs wild harvest

Wild harvest is probably the gentlest agricultural method and is still used to cultivate many tropical raw materials. Various ingredient firms have employed corporate social responsibility strategies in order to better trace and secure raw material supplies. Large ingredient companies are often engaged with local farming villages where wild harvesting is still prevalent.

In Ivory Coast, the third-largest global producer of cocoa, the trees are owned by around 900,000 smallholders, who often scale back when their costs rise. Cocoa is a subject of hedge fund speculation, as these raw materials can be stored for 20 years, and this indirectly affects the future economy for such farmers.

Over the last ten years, ingredients company AAK has built a robust system designed to stabilise its supply of shea-based ingredients by working closely with the female populations in several West African countries who gather the wild-growing shea nuts. The initiative is significantly increasing AAK's supply situation by establishing local women's groups, which are then offered annual a pricing model. The initiative is successful for both parties and AAK has grown the female supply chain from 7,000 in 2011 to 14,000 in 2012, and is expected to expand it still further to reach 30,000 suppliers in 2013.

By cutting out the middle men, the ingredients industry can provide smallholders a stable income and livelihood, while securing their own supply situation.

Manufacturing with water preservation in mind

Many nations have now imposed taxation on water and industrial wastewater. This has given the ingredient manufacturing industry even more incentive to focus on its production processes. One of the most successful stories relates to whey protein extraction. Three decades ago, the wastewater (whey) from cheese production was either ditched into the sewer or used as animal feed. Whey protein is an important commodity ingredient, with annual production totalling approximately five million tonnes or around 4% of the total protein requirements worldwide.

"Palm oil ingredients now represent one third of the 200 million tonnes of oils and fats used in food products."

The process employed to retrieve this protein source may be related to the cost of clean water, which is one of the big challenges facing the dairy industry. However, water-saving initiatives, such as using ultra-low flow fixtures and a greywater-cleaning system that collects rain water and uses ground water from the foundation drainage systems, are being put in place. Dairy manufacturer Fonterra recently joined the new Sustainable Dairying: Water Accord (SDWA). Having spent the last nine years working to improve water quality in-house, the company is now beginning to address the affected wetlands around its manufacturing sites.

Starch producer AVEBE's water-saving policies resulted in a spin-out activity that extracted potato protein from potato water, resulting in protein isolates that are claimed to have 65-75% less environmental load than animal protein.

Recycling wastewater from surimi production and retrieving fish protein was suggested as an industrial opportunity by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Commercial protein extraction from rapeseed oil (canola) has resulted in new ingredient opportunities that could lead to plentiful global supplies of this essential nutrient. Protein is also a versatile ingredient and is useful in achieving physical properties such as stability and emulsion in industrial food products.

Energy expenditure of processing food ingredients

Over the last few decades, the biofuel industry has taken off, and this sector is closely associated with agriculture and food production.

News stories have contained shocking images of small farmers being forced off their land to make room for biofuel crops such as soya and sugarcane. This controversy had led to the food industry being more strictly regulated. An example is edible palm oil production companies in Indonesia, which have been criticised for their decision to expand oil palm plantations in order to cash in on biofuel and neglecting environmental consequences. The EU has called for better controls on imported biofuels and how they are derived.

Palm oil ingredients now represent one third of the 200 million tonnes of oils and fats used in food products, and are versatile and indispensable in structuring industrial food products. Sources claim they are incorporated into more than half of retail foods on the supermarket shelves.

"All steps from farm to fork must be scrutinised to reduce cost, and protect the environment."

As a result, more and more ingredient manufacturers are taking responsibility for their own renewable energy use. Biomass from ingredient manufacturing constitutes excellent feed for producing biofuel, as does raw material waste products such as algae, cobs, husks, nut shells, straw and other cellulose materials.

Companies are employing a variety of diverse renewable energy strategies, an example being Friesland Campina's 'From Grass to Glass' self-sufficiency programme. The salient factors are biogas production, delivery of self-generated biogas to the gas network, the use of biogas by production firms and the sale of green certificates by member dairy farmers. In 2012, Fonterra invested $6.5 million in converting coal-fired boilers to biogas at its Spreyton production site in Tasmania, Australia, which should reduce its annual carbon emissions by 35%.

Sugar cane industry leaders such as Ajinomoto, Dupont and Tate & Lyle are using the bagasse (waste stalks) generated from sugar cane juice extraction as fuel. Cargill, the world's largest ingredient manufacturer, has many initiatives in place, including reclaiming methane from wastewater lagoons linked to meat manufacturing. The company has also displaced 20-25% of natural gas usage at its North American beef-processing planets. In Latin America, energy from sources such as hydro or biomass are contracted to supply electricity to cocoa facilities, soybean-crushing, starch, sweetener.

Ingredient industry leaders must focus on these issues, and all steps from farm to fork must be scrutinised to reduce cost, and protect the environment. However, the different certification and trading initiatives call for better regulation, and food manufacturers and consumers will eventually find little transparency in these systems.

From farm to fork: the salient sustainability issues of food manufacturing
Initiatives around the world are geared towards tracing food origins

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