By Neelam Ferrari
If you are reading this article, it is likely that you are aware of the benefits of reducing food waste and utilizing resources efficiently, towards feeding a growing global population. When it comes to agriculture, this is even more important as farmers need to be aware of costs around water, fertilizer, labor and other items. Once a plant is harvested, much of that plant is not needed for its primary purpose, which is consumption. For example, take a look at corn. A corn plant on the typical US farm grows anywhere between 6 and 12 feet high, and the roots can add another 6 feet. Also consider that on a typical corn plant there are only 1-2 ears of corn per stalk. So for two ears to be harvested, there is a lot of extra biomass that goes along with it, which is not edible. Instead of discarding this excess material as waste, it makes good environmental sense and good business sense to find some value for this material. This is a great opportunity for the circular economy (CE).
The World Economic Forum recently wrote an article stating that farmers produce more than enough food for the global population, so people really should not go hungry. This is a perfect justification for CE applications, which blend technology with business in an attempt to use everything in an industrial process. Moreover, the waste of one industry can be the fuel for another, so that all of the component fit together like a puzzle. Connecting these pieces of this puzzle can be a challenge, but as technological advances in fields like biotechnology and material science become more widespread, more industries are learning of the benefits. So in the example above, does the remaining biomass from a corn stalk have no value? It is probably the opposite. Even though the stalk can not be eaten, it does have value as it can be burned for fuel, or ground and reused as an organic fertilizer. Also, there is still nutritional value, so the remaining biomass can be blended into feedstock for other livestock. By reusing the stalk, growers can also sell to other industries, instead of just discarding or burning as trash.
In addition to finding new uses for what was once ‘wasted’ can applying CE principles lead to new ways to grow crops so that waste is not generated in the first place? This could be where we look more closely at the innovative work taking place at the MIT Media Lab’s OpenAG Initiative. OpenAG has built a prototype food computer where the goal is to create specific climates that are compatible with commercial crops in order to optimize phenotypic characteristics. For example, if growers wanted a particular type of tomato with a targeted color, taste, and texture, a “climate recipe” can be created and shared resulting in the desired tomato. By optimizing food production in this manner we can also save water, energy, and money. This will be a topic explored in future posts.
The CE holds tremendous promise for the agriculture sector and we really can now start to think seriously about making significant changes in the global food production system.