From Chain to Circle: Unlocking Upcycling Potential in Food Production

With a growing world population, food consumption and waste generation are expected to increase. This leads to one of the most challenging global issues: to manage food waste and loss and their social and environmental impact. As there are limited resources on the planet, the food industry needs to develop and pursue sustainable approaches in food production. Upcycling is one way to close the loop to a circular economy. Gelatin has by definition always been an upcycled product and the gelatin industry supports a circular economy by creating new valuable output from by-products of another industry.

During a roundtable featuring three experts from different backgrounds and industries, GROW explored how the industry and startups can follow the example of gelatin and what needs to change in consumer behavior to enable the whole food sector to build a more sustainable production cycle. 

Availability of Resources and Impact of Food Loss and Food Waste

One of the most pressing challenges of current times on a global level is the growing population. Projections suggest that by 2050 the world population will have increased by 25% compared to now, totaling almost 10 billion people*—who all need to be fed.

As food production already comes with negative externalities such as biodiversity loss or soil erosion, which impact the capacities to produce food, our resources cannot be increased infinitely. “We will have to feed more people from the same quantity of resources in the coming years because we only have one planet, it’s not easy to expand resources and resources are already scarce,” explains Eva Gocsik, Research Specialist Animal Protein at Rabobank.

At the same time, we are already wasting a lot of resources and products that could be eaten by people: One third of food produced is lost or wasted between harvest, retail, households, and food service. Limiting food waste can therefore be a major factor in tackling the challenge of a growing world population and increasing food waste.

But how can food waste be reduced? That is where the transition from a linear to a circular (bio)economy comes into play. According to the European Commission, the circular economy is a model of production and consumption that is about reusing, repairing, and recycling existing materials and trying to keep them in the cycle as long as possible**. The goal is to reduce waste to a minimum by extending the life span of products. But as the food industry is prevalently concerned with biological resources, Dr. Evelyn Reinmuth, Head of Bioeconomy Office at Hohenheim University, likes to refer to a circular bioeconomy. The bioeconomy relies on three pillars of sustainability: economy, ecology and social aspects that are reflected in education and innovation. According to Evelyn, to tackle food waste we need to aim for a more sustainable food system in which we have a greater understanding of our resources and valorize them in the right way. Moreover, she stresses the importance of processing by-products into both valuable edible ingredients or nonedible products like packaging to close the loop. 

How Gelatin Implements a Circular Production Cycle

The gelatin industry supports a circular economy by creating new valuable products from animal by-products of the meat industry, such as fish or pig skin and bones. The animals were originally raised for meat production, so no animal is intentionally raised for gelatin production. In this way, gelatin has by definition always been an upcycled product and therefore has a long tradition of being part of the sustainable supply chain, says Richard van Lijssel, Chair of the Sustainability Committee at GME, “Not only is gelatin itself a by-product of the animal industry but the by-products that emerge from gelatin production can be valorized in further applications even outside of the food industry, such as pet food or fertilizers,” he adds.

This makes gelatin an example of an improved sustainable system that closes the circular loop. As the gelatin industry was built on making use of animal by-products, without this industry the volume of food waste and loss would be even higher. For example, the main product used in gelatin production is pig skin, which makes up to three to four kilograms per pig and would be lost if the gelatin industry did not make use of it, as Eva explains.  

At the same time, the role of consumers in the transition to a more sustainable food system should not be underestimated. Eva elaborates that most of the food waste occurs at the household level, because people buy too much and it eventually ends up in the trash. Moreover, “we have been trained to just use the filet, the best parts of the products,” adds Evelyn. However, there is hope that in the near future “consumers [will] rethink their perception of by-products (or-co-products) that are actually not by-products but resources, and we need to use those resources to feed the growing population.”

So, we not only need a system change but also a fundamental change in our mindsets to achieve a more circular economy. Apart from that, new innovations can pave the way toward a more sustainable production cycle. 

What Startups Can Learn from the Gelatin Industry and Vice Versa

Evelyn supervises students and startups that continuously work on finding more sustainable solutions by reusing by-products from within and outside the food industry. She believes that being curious and having encouraging people by your side is an important prerequisite to innovation. Asked what startups can learn from the gelatin industry, Richard suggests that first and foremost feed stocks for these new production processes should be fully utilized: “Resources from a production process that are used in new startup processes should be completely valorized to close the circular loop—even the by-products that come from those processes.”

And secondly, key to any new successful production process is also being sustainable in itself. Which means that these production processes that are developed by startups should also minimize energy and water consumption as well as consumption of chemicals and additives. Richard recognizes that “the production of gelatin is based on a quite traditional production process dating back many years and the production process for gelatin was at that time not optimized for energy and water consumption.” This is an area in which the gelatin industry can still learn from new startups. 

Small initiatives and projects are equally important as a system change to achieve a circular food system and impact the food waste problem. On a larger, global scale, Eva urges that the industry “looks at the waste streams and by-product streams that occur in their production chain and comes up with ideas on what purpose we can give to this waste stream.” However, supply needs to match demand if new innovations are to bring reasonable solutions to this global challenge.

This system change can also be achieved by educating young people in circular thinking and bringing them in at the right positions in companies and giving them the space to make the change. “This way, industries can be enabled to think out of the box and reach more circular solutions,” Richard believes. What all the panelists agreed on at the end of the discussion is that more collaboration and exchange within one supply chain and across industries, science and society are crucial for gaining a better understanding of what each of us can do to achieve a circular system. Overall, a complete circular system may be wishful thinking. However, there are opportunities to unlock upcycling potential in the food industry, where gelatin has a pioneering task, and with that reduce food waste and loss. But what is also necessary is a shift in the mindsets of consumers and more collaboration within the industry and beyond to exchange best practices and learn from each other.