The Netherlands is a global leader in innovative agriculture, well equipped with the knowledge and expertise to help its agriculture industry transform into a sustainable industry based on circular agriculture principles. Waste management is one of the main aspects of circular agriculture and the Netherlands has spent decades studying and experimenting alternative, and more ecologically friendly solutions to waste management in the agriculture and food industry. A number of these innovative products and pilots will be discussed here to illustrate the solutions that the Netherlands is implementing to accommodate a smooth transition towards circular agriculture and food system.
WHAT IS CIRCULAR AGRICULTURE? HOW DID WE GET HERE?
The Netherlands is the second largest exporter of agricultural products in the world. Having this level of success on a global scale has been made possible mainly due to the world-class scientific research and vocational training in the Netherlands which in turn has led to its prosperous and innovative agriculture sector. At the same time, over the years, the high levels of production as well as the intense urbanization have taken their toll and put noticeable pressure on the environment, leading to biodiversity loss. In the traditional farming system, the input in the system includes chemical fertilizers, pesticides, animal feeds and water. The production system leads to a lot of emission and the end product is also not very sustainable as it includes a lot of residuals such as waste water, manure and food wastes.
In the Netherlands as the society has changed, its citizens are more aware of their surroundings and their future. They believe, and it is supported by science, that the impact of agriculture and food production on the climate is considerable and needs to be reduced. In doing so, the farmer, and other actors in the food production industry such as fishermen, need to make big changes and are therefore affected. As it became evident that continuing the current agricultural practices in this way is not only damaging to the nature and climate, but also not economically viable in the long term, the Netherlands had adopted the circular agriculture policy, calling for change and a balance between ecology, economy and living together.
Being a global leader in innovative agriculture, the Netherlands is well equipped with the knowledge and expertise to make that necessary change and help its agriculture industry transform into a sustainable industry.
Circular agriculture can succeed under three conditions:
- Fair prices: The farmers are required to produce food and manage the landscape according to the principles of circular agriculture. The consumer then in turn needs to pay for these services. The role of the supermarkets in regulating a fair price is crucial.
- Appreciation: when the consumer knows about the origin of his/her food and the efforts it took to make that food, then he/she can appreciate the farmer more. Respect for the farmer, strengthens the position of the farmer and encourages the efforts put into sustainable agriculture practices. At the same time, food appreciation means making more conscious choices about food and less food wastes on the consumer’s side.
- Level playing field: The Netherlands has taken the lead in circular agriculture practices but one country cannot do it alone. The international dimension also plays a major role in developing circular agriculture. It is therefore necessary that other countries join the change and produce better or more sustainable food.
Being the leading innovative agricultural producer, and having the ambition to use innovation to secure the future of farming, the Netherlands is ready to partner with other countries in sustainable agriculture and food production, sharing its knowledge and expertise.
ROLE OF WASTES IN CIRCULAR AGRICULTURE
An essential part of circular agriculture and sustainable production is eliminating wastage that occurs in various parts of the food chain, from primary production to the waste-bins in the kitchens. Wastage is unnecessary, leading to unnecessary costs for producers and consumers. At the same time it is harmful to biodiversity, destroying valuable materials that can still play a role in the food cycle. According to the principles of Circular Agriculture, the waste streams of one can be the raw materials for another. In circular animal production for example, cattle are fed primarily with grass, feed crops or crop residues from the farm where they are kept or from the immediate vicinity, as well as with residues from the food industry. This in turn means less emission through less transport of feeds. Applying processed animal manure is crucial for soil health and puts an end to the use of fertilizers based on unsustainable raw materials. In this manner the circular approach ensures a balance between nature and agriculture, which will further reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and have a positive effect on the climate.
Transition agenda Biomass & Food is the Dutch agenda to Reach SDG 12.3 (SDG 12 urges sustainable consumption and production patterns. Within this goal, Indicator 12.3 focuses on global food losses and wastes).The actions formulated in this agenda are meant to make food supply circular, while ensuring that biomass and food must be used optimally and nutrient cycles need to be closed.
Best Practices in Circular Agriculture and Circular Food Systems in the Netherlands
The Netherlands has been working on innovative solutions for challenges that pose a great pressure on natural resources, climate and biodiversity. In this section, a number of these pilots or initiatives will be further explained. For all these practices the three conditions of fair prices, appreciation and level playing field are important.
- One of the examples in waste management in a circular agriculture is the industrial EU demonstration project regarding Manure Management and Technical Innovation. Wageningen University and Research center coordinates this project while contributing to the business case development, monitoring and optimization of the techniques, etc. In this project, among others, the Dutch industry will value manure on a large scale into a number of products: (1) green energy in the form of biogas, electricity and heat, (2) recognized nitrogen fertilizer (ammonium sulphate or nitrate), (3) mineral phosphate as a green secondary raw material for industry, (4) potassium concentrate, (5) organic soil improver with a low phosphate content and reduced nitrogen content and (6) discharged water. The developed technical innovations make it possible to unravel manure into primary N, P or K components. This means a considerate increase in the nutrient resource use efficiency with regard to the use of nutrients in agriculture, which in turn leads to minimizing manure transport.
- There are numerous examples of companies such as Kromkommer (a Dutch wordplay on the words cucumber and crooked), who focus on reducing food wastes of ugly food by turning them into edible consumer products. Kromkommer was founded in 2012 and produced fruit and vegetable soup till 2020. The Surplus Food Factory is another example of such a company that takes surplus food and makes new food from it. This surplus would otherwise be transformed into animal feeds and bio-fermentation as a form of waste.
- Protix won the 2020 innovation price and is a Dutch insect company that produces natural and sustainable proteins from insects. They believe that food system should be in balance with nature. And they see insects as part of the solution to the protein crisis, and to the current food waste. Their larvae provide a unique source of protein for food and feeds. They are destined for aquaculture and livestock feeds, including pet food. Protix has products in over 15 countries, ranging from fish and poultry feeds to pet food specialties. Their facility in Bergen op Zoom uses state-of-the-art technology and is one-of-a-kind when it comes to its levels of automation, digitization and capacity. In their new facility they can produce protein to provide feeds for more than 5 million salmons and 250 million eggs laid by feeding hens with soy free feed. Animal welfare is high on Protix’s agenda as they provide the insects for the chickens’ diets that lay these eggs, combining animal welfare with sustainability. Also they provide insects for aquaculture instead of fish meal for aquafeeds, eliminating the need for “fish for fish”.
- FosVaatje is a project within the Waternet company. The project focuses on sewage water, which normally requires large amounts of energy and chemicals to transport and purify. This system neglects valuable substances that could be recovered from the urine. Phosphorus is the main raw material extracted from urine, which could be turned into phosphate fertilizer by adding magnesium. Turning the Phosphate in urine to phosphate fertilizer means less mining for phosphate. Adding magnesium to phosphorus forms struvite which is phosphate fertilizer. According to Waternet, phosphate has been collected since 2013 using a struvite reactor called the FosVaatje, which takes in urine after a fermentation process. The companies ambition is to expand internationally, working with local water recycle organizations in cities like Singapore and Buenos Aires.
- Another circular product has been made possible by the collaboration between Renewi and PeelPioneers which helps to prevent food wastes by setting up the process that collects and uses citrus peels into valuable new raw materials. PeelPioneers is the first company in the world that processes the components of citrus peels into valuable new raw materials, such as cellulose and pectin, thereby providing a 100% circular solution for the flow of citrus peels that remain after making fresh juice. The Netherlands alone produces around 250 million kilos of citrus peels per year. They are mainly orange peels. Renewi has affiliated to PeelPioneers as a partner. In this partnership, Renewi takes care of the logistics, including the collection at the customer and transport to the production location in Son in the Netherlands. Jumbo Retailers, one of the biggest Dutch supermarket chains, is the first company to have residual citrus peels delivered by Renewi to PeelPioneers. Through the processing line, PeelPioneers expects to process 40,000 kilos of citrus peels per day into essential oils and citrus pulp which are used, among other things, as ingredients for cleaning agents and high-quality supplementary feeds for cattle.
- A 14 meter bio-composite footbridge was constructed in the city of Eindhoven, across the Dommel river. The bridge is constructed from natural fibers flax and hemp around a PLA foam core in a bio rasin. Flax and hemp fibers have composites that show higher specific stiffness than glass fiber composites in both tension and plate bending. They also possess a much higher vibration damping capacity, making them a good candidate for these types of bridges. The epoxy resin used in combination with these fibers has a 56% bio-content. Finally the non-structural core of the bridge was made of PLA (polylactide), which is an aliphatic thermoplastic polyester produced from renewable resources. The philosophy behind the bridge and its design is to experiment with sustainable alternatives for existing environmentally harmful construction materials and by doing so, reduces the use of fossil resources in everyday construction.
- Another example is bio-asphalt, which stretches up to 15 kilometers. The natural adhesive lignin is an excellent alternative because, like bitumen, it gives structure and support to asphalt and it can be produced in large quantities. By replacing half of bitumen with lignin, CO₂ emissions are already reduced by 20% because the greenhouse gas is stored in the road for a long period of time. A huge advantage is also that lignin can be produced at much lower temperatures than bitumen; so much less energy is needed. Lignin is released in enormous quantities during the production of paper and cardboard, but is mainly used as low-grade fuel for energy generation. In the Netherlands alone, 300,000 tons of bitumen is processed in asphalt every year. If you look at Europe, this number is as much as about 15 million tons per year. So there is a significant potential for lignin. And the market is ready to gradually replace bitumen with lignin, provided that the production of suitable lignins, including lignin produced in the Netherlands, is strongly increased in the coming years.
- The YXY process technology for the production of PEF is another product that fits the principles of circular agriculture. This technology was created by the Dutch company Avantium. PEF is short for polyethylene furanoate and is produced entirely from plant-based materials. These PEF bottles are superior to other plastic bottles in many respects, for example they have excellent properties, so the gas barrier for oxygen is ten times higher than that of PET. The entirely bio-based and fully recyclable polymer is the packaging material of the future, particularly for foods and drinks.
- In Westland area in the Netherlands, the epicenter of the Dutch greenhouse horticulture, the residue left from this sector such as tomato plant fibers are free for collection. The company Schut Paper published the world’s first book printed on paper made out of tomato plant fiber in 2014. A characteristic of this paper is that it can be reused seven times over. They now produce books, boxes, menus, brochures from bio-paper. The product is a result of collaboration with growers, knowledge centers, and universities for the circular value of fiber from agricultural residue. Because of this innovative collaboration, composting certain crops such as paprika and tomato are becoming less attractive and reusing them has become more economically sound and sustainable. It is worth mentioning that the Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI) has voted this company’s paper (from tomato plant fiber) as one of the 20 most innovative products in the pulp and paper industry.
- A first of a kind CO₂ capture installation at AVR is the final example of a circular system. AVR is specialized in the processing of various types of residual wastes and its conversion into energy such as steam and heat, and the recovery of raw materials such as ferrous and non-ferrous metals and minerals. The CO₂ capture installation focuses on separating the greenhouse gas CO₂ from the fume gases, making it suitable as a raw material for buyers such as the horticultural sector. In addition to light and heat, CO₂ is an important means of production for greenhouse horticulture because it promotes the growth of crops in (closed) greenhouses. At present, the CO₂ that is used often comes from gas engines or gas boilers. By using external CO₂, horticulturalists can reduce their fossil gas consumption and it offers the possibility to switch to sustainable heat sources.
Looking at these innovative products in the Netherlands, it is evident that circular agriculture is possible and has many benefits in the long run while ensuring a sustainable and secure food production. Similar products are also being produced in Taiwan based on the Circular Agriculture principles. One can only conclude that this offers great opportunities for new and future markets. There is also a need to innovate and scale up fast, but businesses can’t do it single handedly. Good policies and the commitment of all actors lay the fundament for a successful transition towards circular agriculture.
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