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How addressing energy used in food processing contributes to more sustainable agriculture

Greater energy efficiency beyond the farm gate and more sustainable processes inside the farm are the two sides of the same coin.

Addressing energy efficiency in food processing technologies is an essential ingredient for solving the global energy efficiency challenge. Industrial food processing technologies need to embrace the cleantech revolution to reduce their carbon footprint and contribute to a more sustainable (and viable) world.

With an expected world population of about 9.8 billion by 2050 (compared with roughly 7.6 billion today), the carbon impact of the agri-food industry will increase dramatically. Developing countries — where food processing standards are still mainly affected by sanitary regulations and progressively by environmental considerations — will represent about 98 percent of the 2.1 billion person increase in global population growth. So, tackling such a concern appears even more pressing. As of 2016, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that 60 percent more food will need to be produced by 2050 [PDF] to feed the world population.

Given that rural agriculture is among the biggest employer of poor people today, with 65 percent of poor adults working in the agriculture industry, and that the agriculture industry is two to four times more effective in raising incomes than other sectors, the need to focus our efforts on this agri-food chain sustainability challenge becomes more evident.

The FAO started its "Energy-Smart" Food for People and Climate (ESF) program in 2011, helping member countries to begin a transformation of their food chain aiming at: "relying more on low-carbon energy systems and using energy more efficiently"; "strengthening the role of renewable energy within food systems" and "providing greater access to modern energy services for development, and at the same time supporting the achievement of national food security and sustainable development goals." However, if this initiative fosters member countries to strengthen public policies for the sectors related to the agri-food industry, the private sector needs to weigh in to accelerate the implementation of a comprehensive sustainable agri-food chain.

The FAO has been compiling data on how the food industry is improving its energy consumption. Food systems consume 30 percent of the world’s available energy, of which about 70 percent is beyond the farm gate. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the agri-food chain represent slightly more than 20 percent of global GHG emissions annually with countries such as China, India, Brazil, the United States, Indonesia, Pakistan, Australia, Ethiopia, Russia, Mexico and Bangladesh representing 58 percent of total agricultural GHG emissions in 2014.

Tremendous potential savings lie all along the agri-food chain from inputs (seed, irrigation/pumping, livestock feed, fertilizer) to the end user (cooking, transport, household appliances); production (on-farm mechanization, increased operational efficiencies); transport (from farm to collection center and from collection center to processing facility/market); storage and handling (cold storage, moisture control, mechanized sorting/packaging); value-added processing (drying, grinding, milling); transport and logistics (warehouse, road, rail and maritime transport); and marketing and distribution (packaging, retail locations and refrigeration).

Countless technologies and innovations can foster a more energy and resource efficient agri-food chain, and renewable energy sources can further improve the sector’s carbon footprint. These include but are not limited to solar irrigation, wind water pumping, solar/bioenergy drying and heating, solar food processing, evaporative cooling, solar absorption cooling, geothermal heating, optimizing fertilizer use, conservation agriculture, drip irrigation and precision agriculture.

Compadre, a small Peruvian startup providing a solar driven technology to roast coffee beans, is a notable example of the potential of energy savings within the broad food processing industry. The company built a coffee bean roster using sunrays reflected by a Scheffler-type parabolic solar concentrator toward one focal point: the drum. Thus, such technology allows the farmer to roast 1 kilogram of organic green coffee beans in 15-25 minutes, fairly in line with more conventional roasting equipment of similar dimensions. Solar panels generate electricity which is stored in a battery and powers the drum’s rotation system to ensure an even roasting process. The stored electricity also can substitute sunrays on cloudy days, making the technology more reliable despite changes in weather conditions.

Compadre enables the farmers it works with to sell their organic green coffee beans at a significantly higher price than other traditional buyers would be willing to pay. It pays members of its supply network at a price 55 percent to 136 percent higher than the market price for organic green coffee beans. (This is based on management estimates and a market price of $1.56 to $1.83 per kilo of green organic coffee beans.) The company works with six farmer families but could increase its network to 11 families by the end of 2018.

Compadre is working on increasing the roasting capacity of its machine by increasing the size of its parabolic mirror to more than double the output of roasted coffee beans in volume terms (2.5 kgs of beans roasted per 15-25 mins cycle). Improving the current technology will also enable Compadre to roast 100 percent of its organic coffee it sells with solar energy. Currently, 60 percent of the company’s sales consist of coffee beans 100 percent roasted with solar energy. Finally, Compadre is exploring opportunities to sell its products in Europe in the near to medium term, expanding its market way beyond Peru.

Solutions include solar irrigation, wind water pumping, solar/bioenergy drying and heating, solar food processing and evaporative cooling.
Compadre isn’t the only startup, of course, aimed at improving the energy efficiency at other stages of the agri-food chain.

Soliculture is a California-based startup that has developed LUMO solar panels designed for greenhouses. These turn solar green light into a red light, maximizing both power generation and crop growth.

Evaptainers is also another great example of new technology achievement within the agri-food chain. The company provides an evaporative cooling technology to the developing world food industry that requires no electricity, consumes only 1 liter of water per day on average, can store up to 60 liters of perishable products, and cools them at 15-20 degrees Celsius below the ambient temperature.

Indeed, technologies are being developed and improved all along the agri-food chain, with the potential of reducing current GHG emissions to a sustainable level.

For example, Houston-based Grubtubs identified a flaw in the one-way farm to table supply chain and aims at repurposing food waste coming from retailers and restaurants into nutrient-rich animal feed affordable for local farmers.

Startups such as Ynsect, Aspire Food Group, Flying SpArk and Chapul use largescale insect harvesting techniques to feed animals and humans, representing significant potential reduction of GHG emissions, according to the FAO [PDF].

Other startups are fostering unprecedented changes in consumer habits to reduce their meat consumption’s carbon footprint. Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are just two companies that have developed plant-based substitutes to meat.

Now, we need to focus on developing public policies that foster the changes we need in this industry — bringing in more investor capital and inspiring more entrepreneurial ideas that could disrupt the way energy is consumed within the agri-food chain.

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