Investing in Valorization Pathways for the Agri-food Industry
By Fredrika Aakerman
In recent years, we have seen more and more advertisements or articles about so-called “upcycled food” or “circular cosmetics.” In these products, agri-food waste streams, such as ground pits, seeds, and shells or peels, replace petrochemical-based ingredients such as plastic microbeads or synthetic waxes in industries like cosmetics, nutraceuticals, materials, or even pharmaceuticals. The Body Shop, for example, released a line of bath blends using damaged fruits, berries, and vegetables in 2020. These products promote circularity and contribute to reducing waste streams from the agri-food industry and shifting away from petrochemical-based ingredients.
Agri-food waste encompasses both edible and nonedible waste from the production to the consumption of food. This includes edible fruit and vegetables that are left unharvested at the farm, do not meet aesthetic standards, or perish before consumption, as well as the non-edible parts of fruit and vegetables such as roots, leaves, peels, pulps, pits, and kernels. One third of all food produced, 1.6 billion tons of food valued at USD 750 million, goes to waste. In sum, this contributes to around 10 percent of global GHG emissions. In industrializing nations, this waste most often comes from consumption, while in industrializing nations, it comes from food processing. Waste during agriculture is high across the globe. In Southeast Asia, waste from fruit and vegetables, roots and tubers, and fish and seafood are the highest. Today, solid wastes are often landfilled or left to decompose in landfills where they release methane, carbon dioxide, as well as toxic dioxins and ash. Liquid wastes enter waterways, where they have to be treated through energy-intensive methods or pollute groundwater. Given agriculture is a resource-intensive industry, accountable for half of the world’s land use, 70% of freshwater consumption, and 30 percent of energy use, this is an immense waste of valuable products. It is also a lost opportunity to meet the nutritional needs of two billion people.
Recently, and particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic, which sparked awareness of the inefficiencies of the agri-food waste system, regulations are moving to reduce and reuse food waste for primary applications in nutrition. But the market for upcycled ingredients from waste that cannot be used as food is also growing, and there are now certifications like the “Upcycled Certified Standard” that can support this transition and ensure customers that it can be done with quality.
Another key issue is that petrochemical, unsafe ingredients in industries like cosmetics, have widely recognized health and environmental impacts. They pose key threats to humans, like infertility and cancers, and the environment, like microplastics and coral bleaching. Regulations in the EU and the US are seeking to ban many of these chemicals, and some of the largest cosmetics and personal care brands are pioneering Green Chemistry scorecards to guide the selection and innovation of renewable, safe ingredients.
The potential for connecting the agri-food industry and high-end industries is still facing primarily technical challenges. First, there is a limited supply of upcycled ingredients, primarily due to the low extraction efficiency of current recovery technologies. However, the use of supercritical CO2 presents a promising solution to sustainably, efficiently extract compounds. Second, there is concern with ensuring the safety of samples, which is due to the several challenges in maintaining the quality of bio-based ingredients. Here, research concerning encapsulation technologies to address biological instability is growing. Altogether, these products follow long periods of research and regulation compliance to hit the market. However, bridging these gaps will be key to address risk and sustainability in supply chains and meet regulations and consumer demand, where upcycled ingredients could provide a circular alternative to virgin materials.
Mana Impact is interested in supporting and accelerating progress on the technological gaps in this industry to enable circularity, particularly in food waste streams dominant in Southeast Asia. Hopefully, we can serve as a resource for investors looking into this space as well.
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