Hungry for Agri-food: The road to a solution to food waste

Author: Marta Caixinhas

The future of the agri-food sector needs profound changes that accompany the transition to more sustainable systems, in an inclusive approach in terms of processing, packaging, storage, waste, reduction, distribution and retail. 

The future of the sector is hand in hand with the European Green Deal, as the need for more sustainable food systems arises in the last year and presents challenges. Although the EU food system and its value chains were not disrupted by the covid-19 pandemic, this event, together with the conflict in Ukraine, alerted the need for more resilient and sustainable agri-food systems.

Beyond these recent events, the urgency of the transition to a more environmentally sustainable food chain has never been cast aside. The food sector accounts for a large share of GHG emissions (1/3) (Commission, 2020) and is thus a very polluting and resource-intensive sector.

To tackle these challenges, the Farm to Fork Strategy was established in the scope of the European Green Deal. The strategy aims to accelerate the transition to a sustainable food system to have a neutral or positive environmental impact, help to mitigate climate change, reverse the loss of biodiversity, ensure food security, nutrition, and public health, as well as make sure that everyone has access to sufficient and healthy food, and to preserve the affordability of food while generating fairer economic returns, fostering the competitiveness of the EU supply sector, and promoting fair trade (Commission, 2020).

To do so, the mentioned strategy stresses the need for a new collaborative approach between public and private parties that play a role in the food supply chain and horizontal coordination at the political and administrative levels.

While efforts are needed regarding more responsible consumption, the shift relies on better waste and residue management, and a change in the production processes, making them more environmentally friendly. These transformations will only be possible with strong cooperation in key areas such as food research and innovation from a cross-disciplinary angle, supported by a rich and comprehensive set of policies and instruments (European Food Forum).  

The Commission has designed important financial instruments that support the agri-food sector, especially regarding R&I activities that aim to bring new and efficient solutions. They are the following: The European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD); Horizon Europe; European Innovation; the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF); and LIFE – the funding instrument for environmental and climate action. 

With agriculture being one of the most important and most pollutant subsectors in the agri-food systems, while also being one of the biggest integration axes of the EU, its transition has been especially highlighted. The new Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) proposed by the EU Commission in 2018 contains some policy reforms toward sustainable agriculture and forestry in the EU. This greener CAP aims to strengthen the agriculture sector’s contribution to the Green Deal targets, considering local conditions and needs (European Commission, 2021). Following this reform, an “Analysis of the links between the CAP and the Green Deal” was developed to assess the alignment of the new CAP with the EU goals established in the Green Deal and the approaches needed to make this happen. 

The need to create more sustainable agri-food systems has not been overlooked by the European Commission, which has outlined different strategies, legislation, and funds to foster this transition. 

The Commission has also a set of possible and ambitious actions, which includes strategies such as collecting data on the Farm to Fork targets as well as other sustainability indicators. The idea is that through tailored advisory services, this network will provide feedback and guidance to both small and big farmers on best practices to improve their economic, environmental and climate performance (European Commission, 2020).

The EU has also developed a proposal for a legislative framework for sustainable food systems, in the scope of the Farm to Fork Strategy, to be adopted by the end of 2023. This legislation aims to facilitate the transition to a sustainable food by promoting policy coherence at the EU and national levels. This proposal will be open to consultation and impact assessment. 

One of the EC decisions is to make mandatory separation and collection of biowaste by December 2023 for all municipalities (Interreg Europe, 2021), forcing them to implement new schemes for this effect. 

However, the question that arises is whether this investment could not be further explored, drawing on regional input and considering the important role that regions can play in catalysing the sustainability of this important sector.

With this thought, a Smart Specialisation Platform for the Agri-food sector was developed under the Smart Specialisation (an approach that combines industrial, educational and innovation policies to countries or regions to identify and select a limited number of priority areas for knowledge-based investments, focusing on their strengths and comparative advantages) (OECD, 2013)  to foster the development of joint investment projects in the EU by encouraging and supporting interregional cooperation in thematic areas linked to agriculture and food based on smart specialisation priorities defined by regional and national governments. This platform relies on a bottom-up dynamic to cooperate on transformative systemic change in agri-food between EU regions (European Commission, 2016).  

As stressed, it is necessary to identify regional potential to be active players in the transition by providing conditions to enable local action. It is important to highlight the importance of regional actors along the entire value chain of food systems, providing them with incentives to take action. While the range of regional action is vast, it can go from new initiatives and projects to simple actions such as waste and food waste management. 

For instance, the EU-funded project FRONTSH1P aims to contribute to the green transition specifically of the Polish Łódzkie region and hence focuses on several circular systemic solutions, one of them being a focus on food and feed. Within this scope, the project centers its resources around drafting an effective framework that implements both technological and non-technological solutions, and additionally identifies measures to improve on products’ life cycle and eco-design. Finally, it aims to build community-based innovation schemes through citizen and stakeholder engagement.

Specifically within the food and feed sector, the project has committed to introducing the use of new eco-designed circular biobased products and to transform food industry waste into compostable bioplastics for enhancing urban bio-waste collection into compost. In addition to this, oil crops are to be transformed into biodegradable biolubricants for application within the agricultural and industrial sectors, the success indicators for the project being carbon footprint reduction numbers.

Additionally, in the scope of INTERREG, there are a number of successful examples of projects that have arisen from regional collaboration. The COCONAT project emerged from the symbiosis of two polluting industries: the agri-food sector and the textile sector. The project aims to bring a new life, a second purpose to food waste by replacing the chemical substances used in the textile sector to dye fabrics with natural components that reside in food and its waste. 

The SlowFood- CE is another successful project in the scope of INTERREG that created a replicable model that aims to give local and traditional food the so-deserved value, increasing the capacity of local actors, in line with a vision of integrated economic, environmental, and social sustainability.

The FoodChains 4 EU is another example of an initiative that aims to promote innovative tools to foster sustainable and healthy value chains, in which we can identify helpful good practices from different regions. Among these we can highlight the Dutch Edamame – soybean for human consumption, which compiles farmers, researchers, and other stakeholders together to enhance food chain collaboration in a knowledge exchange, where different types of beans were used to state which kind grows best in the region. 

The Flevofood is another effective practice, located in the Netherlands, focused on promoting local products by developing a network of different local stakeholders, fostering SMEs competitiveness. The project built a platform to promote regional product sales. 

Also focusing on the SMEs, the “Recipe for Success” developed a programme that intends to carry multiple activities, such as food and drink workshops, concerning branding, product development, export markets, networking events, etc. 

“Eat like a Pioneer” is a project that involved different dissemination activities, such as communication campaigns, tasting masterclasses and a cook-off, where the goal was to promote “80% green on your plate”.

In a different scope, the Smart Green Retailing promoted better resource efficiency in packaging and energy to improve business sustainability and behavioural change, by combining together brewery and researchers.    

In a supporting dimension, the project “Support the food chain innovation though integrated approach” promotes the introduction of food chain relevance in the regional economies, food chain approaches in public funded projects, and the available funding tools. This will be possible through meetings, public calls, and will benefit a number of sectors (in the form of food chain projects), as well as aid in cooperation and tool use. 

Given the scope and limitations of regional action, as seen in previous successful examples, there should be a joint and coordinated inter-regional effort to share good practices. By combining innovation and technology, regions can start by encouraging the reduction of food waste and local production.

There are already several good practices shared to improve the circularity and sustainability of the agri-food sector, namely in the regional policy field. Regional initiatives are well placed and have great potential to enhance this vital sector, since many of the solutions that were mentioned start from a bottom-up approach. 

As stated, there are already several instruments available, and shortly even more will be unlocked and made available for the regions, such as the Next Generation EU. The use of these funds combined with best practice exchange and inter-regional communication could accelerate the sustainable future of the agri-food sector.

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