Upcycling opportunities in a post-pandemic world

23 May 2020

The food industry has made strides in reducing food waste in recent years – and a growing number of consumers has embraced a ‘zero waste’ goal – but it has re-emerged as a major problem during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the long term, could the crisis boost upcycling and the circular economy?

Upcycling opportunities in a post-pandemic world

Not only are consumers producing more food and packaging waste at home, but foods and ingredients that would have been used in restaurants and the foodservice sector also are going to waste. Farmers are seeing produce rotting in their fields, while dairy producers are tipping away fresh milk and discarding high-end cheeses because of a lack of consumer demand.

The World Food Programme has said that the number of people facing acute food insecurity will double in 2020, while in developed countries, food supply has been largely maintained, although logistics have been a major challenge. Many consumers in western markets have become increasingly aware of their local food supply chains, partly due to scattered disruptions, sporadic deliveries, and price spikes for certain items. It is possible that this could lead to greater demand for sustainably produced, local and seasonal food networks in the future.

More and more food companies have been getting on board with the idea of a circular food economy, closing the loop on food production and food waste, and looking for new uses for the side streams that occur during processing. It is a win-win situation, providing both environmental and financial benefits.

Some ingredients go even further, providing health benefits as well. UK-headquartered Comet Bio, for example, is among the latest to develop an upcycled ingredient with its Arabinoxylan Plant Fibre Extract, a prebiotic made from farm leftovers such as leaves, stalks, and shells. Other companies active in the area include the Israeli ingredients company Frutarom Health, which has developed an organic soy isoflavone ingredient from soy germs, which are currently not used in soy-based beverages, helping cut waste from the production process; FlaNat Research Italia, which recovers nutrients from agro-food by-products to produce botanical extracts for use in nutraceuticals; and Scelta Mushrooms, which produces a range of products and salt-enhancing extracts from mushroom waste.

In the United States, a group formed in January 2020 called the Upcycled Food Association recently issued a definition of upcycled food, saying: "Upcycled foods use ingredients that otherwise would not have gone to human consumption, are procured and produced using verifiable supply chains, and have a positive impact on the environment."

The association aims to develop a certification programme for upcycled food and ingredients later in the year, and the definition will form the basis of that system. The hope is that this may motivate more companies to ramp up their upcycling efforts.

Considering the current global focus on food supply chains, and the environmental and economic impacts of current ways of doing business, there may never be a better time to develop a truly circular food economy.