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Agrifood

More people are looking at their nutritional intake, not only to improve wellbeing but also reduce their environmental impact. With this, comes a move to include foods that are not traditionally cultivated or consumed in Europe.

Assessing whether this growing volume of so called ‘novel foods’ are safe for human consumption is the task of the European Food Safety Authority. The EFSA points out, ‘The notion of novel food is not new. Throughout history new types of food and food ingredients have found their way to Europe from all corners of the globe. Bananas, tomatoes, tropical fruit, maize, rice, a wide range of spices – all originally came to Europe as novel foods. Among the most recent arrivals are chia seeds, algae-based foods, baobab fruit and physalis.’

Under EU regulations any food not consumed ‘significantly’ prior to May 1997 is considered to be a ‘novel food’. The category covers new foods, food from new sources, new substances used in food as well as new ways and technologies for producing food. Examples include oils rich in omega-3 fatty acids from krill as a new source of food, phytosterols as a new substance, or nanotechnology as a new way of producing food.

Providing a final assessment on safety and efficacy of a novel food is a time consuming process. At the start of 2021 the EFSA gave its first completed assessment of a proposed insect-derived food product. The panel on Nutrition, Novel Foods and Food Allergens concluded that the novel food dried yellow meal worm (Tenebrio molitor larva) is safe for human consumption.

SCIblog 28 January 2021 - Novel Foods - image of mealworms

Dried yellow meal worm (Tenebrio molitor larva) is safe for human consumption, according to the EFSA.

Commenting in a press statement, as the opinion on insect novel food was released, Ermolaos Ververis, a chemist and food scientist at EFSA who coordinated the assessment said that evaluating the safety of insects for human consumption has its challenges. ‘Insects are complex organisms which makes characterising the composition of insect-derived products a challenge. Understanding their microbiology is paramount, considering also that the entire insect is consumed,’

Ververis added, ‘Formulations from insects may be high in protein, although the true protein levels can be overestimated when the substance chitin, a major component of insects’ exoskeleton, is present. Critically, many food allergies are linked to proteins so we assess whether the consumption of insects could trigger any allergic reactions. These can be caused by an individual’s sensitivity to insect proteins, cross-reactivity with other allergens or residual allergens from insect feed, e.g. gluten.’

SCIblog 28 January 2021 - Novel Foods - image of a German supermarket selection

EFSA research could lead to increased choice for consumers | Editorial credit: Raf Quintero / Shutterstock.com

The EFSA has an extensive list of novel foods to assess. These include dried crickets (Gryllodes sigillatus), olive leaf extract, and vitamin D2 mushroom powder. With the increasing desire to find alternatives to the many foods that we consume on a regular basis, particularly meat, it is likely that the EFSA will be busy for some time to come.

Science & Innovation

After eight months of operation in Antarctica, the EDEN ISS greenhouse has produced a ‘record harvest’ of fresh lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, and other herbs and vegetables to support the 10-member overwintering crew stationed at the German Neumayer Station III, the team reported in September 2018. Despite outdoor temperatures of -20°C and low levels of sunlight, the greenhouse yielded 75kg of lettuce, 51kg of cucumbers, 29kg of tomatoes, 12kg of kohlrabi, 5kg of radishes and 9kg of herbs – on a cultivation area of ca13m2.

The goal of the EDEN ISS is to demonstrate technologies that could be used by future astronauts to grow their own food on long distance missions to Mars and other more distant planets, explained NASA controlled environment technician Connor Kiselchuk, speaking at the Bayer Future of Farming Dialogue event in Monheim in September 2018. ‘Food determines how far from the Earth we can go and how long we can stay,’ he said.

How does the EDEN ISS greenhouse in Antarctica work? Video: German Aerospace Center, DLR

Even if astronauts took a year and a half’s supply of food with them on a mission to Mars, for example, he pointed out that the food would be ‘very deficient in B vitamins’ by the time they came to eat it.

Policy

In July 2017, the UK government announced plans to end the sale of all new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040, but there’s a long way for the electric vehicle market to go before that target can be reached – low-emission vehicle sales still account for just 0.5% of total car sales.

Last week, the European Commission announced a new Innovation Deal that could go some way to overcoming barriers to electric vehicle development and acceptance by consumers.

Entitled ‘From e-mobility to recycling: the vitreous loop of the electric vehicle’, it is designed to help innovators address regulatory obstacles to the recycling and re-use of propulsion batteries in second-life applications, such as energy storage.

The deal comprises a multi-disciplinary working group of partners across industry and government in France and the Netherlands. In France, Renault, Bouygues and the Ministries for the Ecological and Inclusive Transition and Economy and Finance; in the Netherlands, renewable energy technology company LomboXnet, the Provice of Utrecht, and the Ministries of Infrastructure and Water Management, Economic Affairs, and Climate Policy.

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Carlos Moedas, EU Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, said, ‘The electric vehicle revolution is a testimony to how innovation generates growth and fundamentally changes society for the better. In order for Europe to stay in the lead of this innovation race, we need to work together with innovators and authorities to make sure our laws do not hamper innovation. This Innovation Deal will clarify the regulatory landscape in this area, and boost demand for electric vehicles.’

Robin Berg, founder of LomboXnet is one such innovator set on fundamentally changing society for the better. In Utrecht, the Netherlands, his company has set up a smart solar charging network that allows excess solar power harvested via rooftop photovoltaic panels to be stored in electric vehicle batteries – the energy can then be transferred between car and home as demand requires.

‘Enhancing the economic value of car batteries through vehicle-to-grid applications, second-life battery projects and smart solar charging of cars, creates huge business opportunities,’ Berg said.

‘The Smart Solar Charging consortium in Utrecht Region led by LomboXnet together with Renault seeks to increase these opportunities to spur the transition to a renewable energy system and a zero-emission mobility future. Europe is leading in these developments; this Innovation Deal offers a chance to further strengthen Europe’s leadership.’

Pure electric vehicle sales were down in the first two months of 2018 compared with the previous year – although sales of plug-in hybrid cars, which combine a conventional petrol or diesel engine with an electric motor that can be charged at an outlet or on the move, were up by 40% over the same period.

Health & Wellbeing

Combatting malnutrition in all its forms – overweight and obesity as well as undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies – is a global problem.

The European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) recently published a report calling for urgent action on food and nutrition security: this action will need to include consideration of the options for changing European diets to mitigate climate change, conferring co-benefits for health.

 EUs population is overweight

The European Commission estimates 51.6% of the EU’s population is overweight. Image: Tony Alter/Flickr

EASAC brings together EU member states’ national science academies with the aim of offering evidence-based advice to European policy makers. EASAC provides a means for the collective voice of European science to be heard and its recent report is part of a global project led by the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP).

The analysis and recommendations for Europe are accompanied by parallel activities focusing on Africa, Asia and the Americas. The IAP report will be published later in 2018.

 EASAC

EASAC recommendations will incorporate global challenges and needs, not just those in Europe. Image: Pixabay

In the EASAC report we emphasise that research and innovation are central to finding solutions. We recommend being more ambitious in identifying and using scientific opportunities: How can the current evidence base shape understanding of both supply- and demand-side challenges? And how should the research agenda be defined, including basic research, to fill knowledge gaps?

Climate change will have negative impacts on food systems, necessitating the introduction of climate-smart agriculture such as the adoption of plant breeding innovations to cope with drought.

Climate-Smart Agriculture in Action. Video: Farming First 

Agriculture and current diets also contribute significantly to climate change. Mitigating this contribution depends on land-sparing and agronomic management practices together with efforts to influence consumer behaviours associated with excessive greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, including the over-consumption of calories and meat.

Among the core findings in our report is that food consumption will need to change to improve consumer health. It is important to explore individual responsiveness to nutrition and the links to health, and to consider the particular needs of vulnerable groups.

 High meat production

High meat production has been linked to increasing carbon emissions. Image: Pixabay

As part of the changes to food consumption patterns, a decrease in the consumption of animal protein could be important for both health and the environment but, globally, more research is needed to clarify these relationships and to measure sustainability related to consumption of healthy diets. We also call for policy makers to introduce incentives for affordable nutrition.

Agriculture has significant impacts on the environment. We call for the revamp of the Common Agricultural Policy to focus on innovation rather than subsidies, in order to play a key role in European competitiveness and the bioeconomy.

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Originally posted by sunbursts-and-marblehalls

Alternatives to traditional forms of animal protein include food from the oceans, laboratory-grown meat and insects. Research is needed to understand and inform consumer attitudes to innovative food and diets.

Also, research objectives for the next generation of biofuels should include examining the potential of cellulosic raw materials. Further ahead, energy research must continue to explore how to engineer systems with improved photosynthesis.

 Biofuels

Biofuels are derived from common crops, including wheat, corn and sugar. Image: Public Domain Pictures

Europe should not stall on opportunities for innovation coming within range. Breakthroughs in genome editing and other genetic research are crucial to the future of agriculture. European policy makers must capitalise on these scientific advances.

For improved plant and animal breeding, it is important to protect and characterise wild gene pools and to continue sequencing and functional assessment to unveil the potential of genetic resources. Precision agriculture offers many opportunities to improve productivity with reduced environmental impact. Large data sets are vital to support innovation and prepare for risk and uncertainty.

 

Open-source automated precision farming | Rory Aronson | TEDxUCLA. Video: TEDx Talks

Underpinning all our recommendations is the recognition that research and innovation must be better integrated, across disciplines and the public and private sectors, in order to better understand the interfaces between health, nutrition, food and other ecosystem services.

EASAC emphasises that efforts to increase food systems’ efficiency should not focus on increasing agricultural productivity by ignoring environmental costs.

Sustainability & Environment

As the old adage goes, one man’s trash is another’s treasure – but the saying extends much further than neighbourly recycling of unwanted furniture or a misjudged gift passed on to a friend. A process known as industrial symbiosis takes the idea of repurposing waste – as the name suggests – to an industrial scale.

The basic principle is satisfyingly simple. Two (or more) factories or process plants located nearby – for example, in an industrial park – use each other’s waste streams as fuel, thus reducing waste and cost for both. In an age where industries measure their success in both economic and environmental performance, it’s easy to see how that appeals to business.

Putting it into practice, though, is not quite so easy.

For a start, there’s the issue of corporate sensitivity. How can one company trust another with specific details of its energy, material and heat needs and, even more so, the makeup of its waste?

 

Kalundborg in Denmark is one of several locations where industrial symbiosis is bringing different industries together to share resources. 

Project EPOS – a four-year EU Horizon 2020-funded project – has come up with a workaround. The project’s PhD researchers have developed blueprints for each energy-intensive sector within the project’s scope – chemicals, cement, steel, minerals, and engineering – allowing companies to share a generic view of their sector’s heat, electricity, and material stream profiles with other companies, scaled to their size, without divulging their site-specific secrets.

 

Professor Greet Van Eetvelde and PhD researcher Helene Cervo explain the EPOS Project.

‘It started with INEOS, where we had a willingness to share our results, to share what we are doing, but not to share our data […] these blueprints are the heart of the toolbox,’ EPOS Project Coordinator, Professor Greet Van Eetvelde explained at a recent briefing on EPOS in Hull, UK. Through access to these blueprints, chief engineers and plant managers can identify opportunities to make best use of their industrial neighbours’ waste streams.

Three companies operating in northeast-England’s Humber Estuary – INEOS, CEMEX and Omya – in the petrochemical, cement, and minerals sectors, respectively – are the first in the UK set to implement the initiative, following research by PhD students based in the UK, Switzerland, Belgium, and France. The wider EPOS project includes clusters in France, Switzerland, and Poland, with ArcelorMittal and Veolia, five SMEs, and two research institutes – École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland, and Ghent University, Belgium – completing the partnership.

 Overview of the EPOS project

Overview of the EPOS project. 

Currently, INEOS sends waste liquid fuel to its utility provider to produce steam to be fed back into INEOS, while CEMEX derives 20% of its fuel from primary sources – presenting an opportunity for CEMEX to increase its secondary fuel proportion by re-using the waste from INEOS.

In this example, waste liquid fuel from INEOS is separated into acid and high-calorific organic components. The latter can then be delivered directly to CEMEX for use as a fuel, while the former can be fed back into INEOS’ process. 

The researchers estimate that this will deliver equivalent savings of 1,200–1,400 tonnes of CO2 per year. It requires initial investment from both companies, but a payback timeline estimates that the process will break even and then continue to deliver savings in just two years for INEOS and three for CEMEX.

It requires initial investment from both companies, but a payback timeline estimates that the process will break even and then continue to deliver savings in just two years for INEOS and three for CEMEX.

The WISP programme in South Africa is another example of industrial symbiosis in action. 

Before INEOS and CEMEX can begin their industrial symbiosis, however, new permits will be required – some materials currently classified as hazardous waste will require reclassification to be transported and re-used. Professor Van Eetvelde told SCI that it is not investments that will hamper the implementation of EPOS, but waste legislation, which presents different challenges regionally. ‘We need policymakers to come with us,’ she said.