08 Mar 2024

“Reinventing the wheel” in the struggle to cut global waste: the food upcycling challenge

Food waste is a large contributor to global warming. Increasing efforts are being made to “upcycle” ingredients that are not normally eaten, but “time is running out", says the International Food Waste Coalition. Can the agri-food industry turn the tide in the drive for sustainability?

The fact that Finland has staged an annual herring festival ever since 1743 tells you something about the historical and cultural significance of the country’s most populous fish. The Helsinki Baltic Herring Market continues to attract tens of thousands of visitors each October. But the variety of dishes on offer, culinary competitions, boat races and party atmosphere belie the fact that all is not well with the industry. Dwindling stocks led to EU herring quotas being slashed in the Baltic Sea in the autumn of 2023, although an outright fishing ban was avoided. Meanwhile, the national treasure is not as popular as it once was.

“It has been a dramatic change because if you look 30 years back in Finland we ate maybe 30 million kilos, and then in 2018 only three million kilos, so there has been a huge decline in the usage of domestic small pelagics,” says Michaela Lindstrom of Finnish foodtech company Hailia, adding that today many Finns prefer the likes of imported Norwegian salmon, Alaska pollock and canned tuna. As the government launched a long-term drive for a fivefold increase in the use of Baltic herring as human food, she and business partner Otto Kaukonen saw an opportunity in “upcycling” seafood side streams: redirecting the estimated 80% of Finnish herring that currently ends up not on Finnish dinner plates but as fish meal. They created Hailia in 2021; its factory at Karkkila now transforms underutilised small Baltic herring and side streams from other fish such as Nordic trout – including bones, fins and skin – into easy-to-use mainstream products for human consumption.

“I think that you should utilise as much of the protein resources you have at hand to human food instead of making just feed out of it for other animals,” Lindstrom argues. “We wanted a big increase of the total usage of pelagics, so that was the kind of starting point. But already in the beginning we understood that the same technology that we were going to develop and the idea that we had could be used globally, to valorise and to upcycle – whether it’s underutilised small pelagics or whether it’s side streams.”

In 2020 a team of academic and environmental experts defined “upcycled food” as using “ingredients that otherwise would not have gone to human consumption, are procured and produced using verifiable supply chains, and have a positive impact on the environment”. With food waste estimated by the IPCC in 2019 to account for around 8-10% of human-caused global greenhouse gas emissions, upcycling is promoted as one way of helping to create a more sustainable and resilient food system.

The European Union’s Agro2Circular (A2C) project aims to use innovative methods to upcycle waste generated by the agri-food industry: plastic waste, and organic waste from fruit and vegetables – which is estimated to be responsible for 40% of wasted food. One of four regional schemes to develop sustainable ecosystems, it is being tested in Murcia and replicated in Italy and Lithuania.

Project coordinator Fuensanta Monzò explains how the waste is generated: “It could be from preparing juices: orange juice, grape juice, apple juice, any kind of juice. It could be because we are preparing marmalades and jams or vegetable cans, it could be because we are packaging vegetables and we are removing some leaves or stems,” she says, citing cauliflower and broccoli as examples. Two different extraction techniques are used, she explains, the main aim of which “is obtaining high value substances that can be used again in the food industry, in the cosmetic industry or in the nutraceutical industry: for example polyphenols, carotenoids, fibre.” Neutraceuticals are defined as products derived from food sources that bring medical or health benefits in addition to their basic nutritional value. In the food industry, “they are added like additives, giving the food extra functionality. For example, imagine a hamburger: the hamburger is made of meat, but by adding this dietary fibre in the hamburger, in a way they are like upgrading this nutritional value because they are filling it with a high content of fibre.”

A public awareness campaign on upcycling was launched in Murcia, while A2C also features a digital tool aimed at tracking the components of upcycled products, in line with the European Commission’s Green Deal proposals. The International Food Waste Coalition said in its 2023 report there were only seven years left to meet UN targets for reducing waste. Despite encouraging progress, particularly within Europe’s food service and hospitality sector, it added that urgent support from businesses was needed.

“The problem is that I think upcycling is not that widespread yet… there’s a lot of good ideas but the amount, the scale, is simply not there,” says Jessica Aschemann-Witzel, Director of the MAPP research centre at Aarhus University and co-author of a recent scientific study on food upcycling. It found that while the concept has “huge potential”, “not all products… live up to their resource-saving and value-adding promise”. “Everybody means something completely different” when talking about food upcycling, and “there’s a danger that it sort of gets diluted into the wrong thing”, the researcher adds.

Identifying two distinct upcycled product groups, the study says one “tackles the symptoms but not the underlying issues” relating to sustainability and risks restricting the contribution upcycling can make. “One approach is that you try to rescue food from being wasted, but then there are also people coming up with ‘forgotten’ upcycling ideas where people today forgot that they could actually eat this, and then they take up this forgotten knowledge or maybe have some new ideas that people 200 years ago didn’t do, and then it’s a novel use of something,” Aschemann-Witzel explains. “If it’s only about rescuing then we forget to change the system that leads to waste in the beginning… the other approach goes deeper into changing the system.”

“We’re throwing away too much, so preventing side streams should actually be the goal. However, for the time being I’d say recycling or upcycling certain side streams is better than throwing them away,” says Tobias Camps, Director of Care & Cure at the Dutch catering group Hutten. Its “no-waste” factory processes around €2 million of wasted vegetables into new products, including ketchups and sauces. Its partnership with FOX, another EU-backed project, involved upcycling waste from green pea production, and increasing the amount of protein served in dishes to hospitals.

“Be very careful in calculating how much you think you can produce, but also how many people are willing to buy whatever it is you’re upcycling, so be very diligent in making your business case,” is Camps’ advice to companies thinking of taking up the process. “If there’s subsidies involved in the first few years, are you able to do it on your own after those subsidies aren’t there anymore?”

In Finland, Michaela Lindstrom says that after a somewhat slow start when Hailia’s upcycled products went on the market a year ago, sales have started to pick up. Aware of potential customer sensibilities, the company does not use fish heads and guts. But, she argues, making better use of the country’s Baltic herring stock – whose carbon footprint is “ridiculously low” compared to all other animal proteins, she points out – is a no-brainer in terms of sustainability. “I think it’s crucial, if you think that globally it’s assumed that the usage of seafood products will double by 2050,” she says. “Instead of fishing more or just putting more efforts to the aquaculture we could just utilise the current stock more effectively, and in that sense meet the future demand.”
Jessica Aschemann-Witzel argues that “a whole business ecosystem” needs to be developed to boost the impact of upcycling, and “there’s still a lot of logistical problems and regulatory problems that have to be solved”. “In sustainability I think often the problem is that people search for one big solution and some technological fix, but in reality it’s actually a whole network of different things that have to happen and interact with each other,” she adds. “It’s not the big thing, the magic bullet, but it’s part of the whole package.”

Written by Alasdair Sandford

Photo credits: Elena Mozhvilo by Unsplash

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