How can a more efficient system provide food for the entire global population?

Published on
November 14, 2022

How can you use organic bio raw materials as efficiently as possible and keep them in the cycle? And how do we organise this among ourselves? Wageningen researchers reveal their vision of the circular food system of the future in a series of podcasts and articles. Jan Broeze talks about the central issue in Flagship 1: How can we supply the world's growing population with food and resources while respecting our planet?

In the Circular Connected programme, four research teams – from so-called Flagship projects – at Wageningen University & Research (WUR) have worked together on the HOW question of the transition to a circular bioeconomy. This is a society in which organic resources form the basis of our food system and in which bio raw materials are no longer wasted.

Government agencies and public bodies, companies, consumers and other stakeholders each have their own roles and interests in the transition to a Circular Bioeconomy. Circular Connected explores how all these parties can meet their needs without – inadvertently – depriving others of choices.

Listen to the podcast

Interested in Jan Broeze's vision of a changing food system and the role in it of livestock, beans and insects? Listen to the podcast.

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"I see circularity mainly as a means to make our food system more efficient, not as an end in itself," says Jan Broeze, leader of the project looking into what a circular food system would mean, for example on a European scale. "As far as I’m concerned, circularity is an umbrella term for a lot of opportunities that are there to make the food system more efficient. For example, by making better use of residual flows from agriculture and horticulture, and also from the food sector. In particular, we aimed to illuminate the effects of improving our current systems."

Everything is usable material

As is well-known, our current food system is battling major problems, including nitrogen and greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, there is the major challenge of putting food into everyone’s mouth. Circularity can contribute to these challenges, but so can, for example, the protein transition and making the best use of residual flows from the food sector. Food sector by-products are already being used as fodder. This is a logical choice, but there are examples showing that it is possible to upgrade these by-products to human nutrition. Brewers grain, for example, is a high-protein by-product of the beer industry that now goes to livestock but can also be processed into bakery products. In short, Broeze believes there is room for improvement. "With a more efficient production system, we can generate more food using the resources at our disposal. Permitting animal products in animal feed once more can also contribute to this." There are also gains to be made in improving the utility of residual streams. Currently, they often end up in waste bins and lose their value. Broeze: "We need to move away from our waste society. Everything is a resource and has a possible use. This demands handling tailored accordingly."

Adjustment to diets

The Flagship 1 researchers also looked at how European food needs are met with different diets. Broeze: "A switch from animal to plant protein is needed, but we cannot expect improvement to come purely from a changing consumption pattern. We should also look at more effective production. I’m convinced that we can produce enough to feed the growing global population, but not if we export our Western diet." The western footprint is too large and demands too much land use, but that does not mean we should all go vegan, according to Broeze. "The animal has a role in a circular food system. Even if we may now have become too dependent on livestock. The protein transition, a shift to plant-based proteins such as in beans and nuts, is inevitable. The land freed up as a result, because we produce less animal fodder and focus more on producing food directly for humans, is also needed to produce raw materials for resources."

Champion in residual flow valorisation

When abroad, Broeze often hears that the Netherlands is a champion in residual flow valorisation. "I think we are now ready for the next step in this. We also have to realise that this process never ends. In future, with changing dietary patterns, other residual flows will be produced in turn." The researchers took a closer look at the effects of a change in consumption and found that new challenges keep turning up here.

Preventing waste

The good news is that there are still many ways to make our current system more efficient. Such as avoiding waste, which in turn creates leeway in other places in the system. As far as Broeze is concerned, circularity is an umbrella term for a host of opportunities that there are to make the food system more efficient. Making better use of residual flows is just one of them. "The challenges are great, so I think we should take seriously all conceivable solutions."

Land for biobased fuel

Broeze believes that we should also make room in the agrosystem for biobased fuels from cultivated crops. "As scientists, we look at how to make the best use of fertile land and investigate alternatives. The debate about the importance of food versus fuel is not a scientific one but a societal one."

And what is science’s role? It is to find as many solutions as possible and to demonstrate their relevance. “My colleagues and I can also generate awareness and inspire others by revealing the effects of improvements. Seeing residual flows not as waste, but as valuable raw materials is an important first step that requires adaptation from both the consumer and the producer."