Many different stakeholders make up the Sustainable Food Initiative (SFI). Connections are formed between industry, SMEs, start-ups, universities, teams of students and researchers. These parties all have a strong drive and passion to participate in the SFI. This will be the first in a series of interviews where we will ask these partners about this passion and about their vision and participation in the SFI. First up: Remko Boom, professor of Food Process Engineering at Wageningen University.
Why has the SFI been created?
We are all well aware that we are heading towards a host of social problems; the world's population is growing while food production is under pressure from global warming. Soil depletion and the competitive cultivation of non-food related products are very real and imminent issues.
A lot is being said about these problems but the focus is often mainly on how difficult they are to solve. I think we should have the ambition to make what we first viewed as impossible, possible. Oftentimes we find out solutions by trying new things, we need to apply this and then pay attention to where new possibilities arise.
I think we should have the ambition to make what we first viewed as impossible, possible.
How will the SFI achieve this?
In addition to developing new technologies, it is essential to also look at new approaches. In the food industry, new technologies have long been used to make processes more efficient. If we stay within the confines of our normal thinking processes new solutions may not be discovered. By stepping out of our own framework we will really be able to innovate, and that is what we aim for within the SFI. We bring together all players, but also people from outside of our normal circles, into the chain, and then we will look at the sustainability of the entire food chain together.
Which goal is important to Wageningen University?
The ambition of the SFI is to make the production of food in a sustainable manner possible while also ensuring healthy food for our future generations and at the same time achieving our climate goals. This all fits in seamlessly with the ambition of the WUR, of which I am a part.
The difference that SFI makes is that it brings people from many different disciplines together. So the knowledge of technologists is combined with that of psychologists, economists, ecologists and perhaps even philosophers. We have to challenge each other, and we have to learn from each other, because only then can we change the chain as a whole.
What role can students play within the SFI?
In my view, universities may have become a little bit too professional recently and education and research have grown apart. In the first years students mainly take courses and have a few practical sessions. Only in the last part of their studies do they really come into contact with research. At the same time, the universities may have removed themselves a bit further from the social practice: whereas the university is mainly interested in discovering new things and publishing them, many people in the supermarket or on the street are concerned by very different things. All the while exactly this interaction between that practice and university’s community is such an important connection, for the students as well. I am convinced that students will be even more motivated if they know that their results and ideas have a real practical significance.
In honor of the university's 100th anniversary we have composed societal challenges: teams of students will receive an assignment and compete with each other. That is a fantastic start and we could do something similar within the SFI.
For the SFI we are also thinking about so-called rolling challenges. In the current situation challenge teams have a few months to form their solution. After the final presentation, the team ceases to exist, and the students go their separate ways. Within these rolling challenges however the teams do not cease to exist but senior students who graduate will drop out, while newly started junior students will enter. The senior students can then instruct the junior students about the approach they have chosen. Because the team will continue to exist for several years it will build up a lot of expertise, which means that they will also be able to answer more difficult questions than a regular short lived challenge team. I personally think that that is very exciting! I can also imagine that such a team might eventually become a start-up company. This would be even better, as far as I am concerned, because this will fit seamlessly into the SFI.
But we could do even more. During the course of their studies, students will conduct a lot of experiments during practicals. These are often standard experiments that are the same every year. But what if we were to prepare a slightly different question or experiment every year for every student? And collected the results? If this is data collected every year we will eventually amount a wealth of data that we can process together with the students and use within the SFI. This way we can make much better use all of our possibilities that are already in existence.
How important are start-ups for the SFI?
As SFI our mission is to bring about a change: our first target is reducing the emissions in the production of our food by 50% by the year 2050. This will require more than just research. We need people who are not afraid to take risks, take big steps, and make the impossible possible. I think those people, who are real entrepreneurs, can be found in startups, and that that is also the way to put new products and concepts on the market.
To achieve this we actually need a combination of three worlds: startups, large companies, and knowledge institutions. Startups are essential to realize real changes. Large companies are needed because of their strength, knowledge and vision. And knowledge institutions are needed for the creative young people, and also the knowledge that is there. The SFI brings them together and forms a sort of breeding ground that can stimulate startups and bring them into direct contact with their launching customers.
What kind of solutions can we think of?
Our current production methods have already been greatly optimized, and it is difficult to find much more room for improvement. If you look at the system as a whole however, we do lose a lot. We have optimized small parts, but not yet the big picture.
An example is the production of ingredients, which is highly optimized for the production of one specific ingredient; the rest is often seen as side stream. If you organize the production process in such a way that you are slightly less efficient in the production of that one ingredient, but have a much higher quality in the other streams, you can make far better use of the raw materials overall.
An interesting thing that we have found during ISPT projects is that we can do this by focussing the production much less on purity, and consciously produce impure fractions, it can sometimes lead to a very new functionality. You can keep the natural stability of ingredients intact by very mildly separating. After all, the sunflower oil was completely stable in the sunflower seeds. And if we keep them in their natural 'packaging' of phospholipids with proteins, they also appear to be stable even if we have removed them from the seeds. In this state you can use them in such a way that additions to prevent oxidation of the oil aren’t needed. Resulting in less 'E numbers'.
With this approach we can make proteins, carbohydrates, oils and other ingredients. AND they will contain a lot more fibre and micronutrients. But moreover, much more of the raw material ends up in the products. This means that we’ll end up using a much larger proportion of the raw material. We can increase this not by solely looking at the standard raw material: seeds, tubers, and things like that, but also at the foliage of the plants that we leave behind on the land itself. For example the protein left in the sugar beet’s leaves in the Netherlands alone would be enough to cover a large part of the total Dutch protein consumption.
What is the role of consumers?
Huge, of course. The consumer determines what he or she buys. And what isn’t purchased by the consumer also does not contribute to our sustainability objective. We therefore have to involve the consumers in what we do, and ideally I would also like to involve the consumers directly in the research. Hopefully we can achieve this through the modern 'data sciences'.
But there are also some more specific issues that I can think of from a technological point of view. The sustainably produced foods will probably not always look exactly the same as the current products, because they are no longer dismantled at the molecular level and then reassembled. A mayonnaise may not be completely white, or it may taste a little different.
In addition, such a product could also vary in terms of properties over time. Sometimes it will be a bit fuller in taste, and sometimes a bit fresher. By preserving the natural fractions, you will end up with more variation as well as the additional nutrients that are naturally encapsulated, such as the fibres.
In wine and cheese, consumers seem to like this variation. Why not do that for other products? This way, consumers also have a more active role in choosing their products. I can also imagine that as a consumer you would also like to know what you are buying and not have to consider whether this specific product fits your recipe. This is why we will have to look at this together with the consumers carefully, and see how we can all handle out food in a different way.
And perhaps this will not only contribute to sustainable food production, but ultimately also make cooking as well as eating more fun.
Accelerating this process means that we no longer have the time to sequentially initiate stand-alone research projects. It means we will need to work on implementation, development and fundamental research, all at the same time.
Fortunately we all seem to agree that we need to centralise optimisation of the production chain. So that we can eventually greatly reduce redundancy and with it the resulting waste stream.
We believe we can achieve this by forming a better connection between the end-use of the food-product and the primary production, enabling us to re-design the chain with the end-product in mind. This requires an enormous amount of collaboration within the food production chain. Achieving this level of collaboration is a hurdle that currently seems too great to overcome and this is halting progress in innovation. This is exactly why we are now bringing together all of these parties within the SFI.
It’s important that we can also show the connection between the new production processes that we are generating and the consumer’s acceptance of the resulting products. In essence we would like to run the SFI as a sort of start-up, but a start-up that has the capabilities of a large scale company. So that we can demonstrate that we can make safe food-products that taste great and are produced in a much more sustainable way.