It’s been a period of change in the world of industrial biotechnology, with Scotland’s research centre (IBioIC) moving to a new funding phase and a passing on of the baton in the BBSRC’s Networks in Industrial Biology and Biotechnology. Last week I attended a Commercial Advisory Board meeting at IBioIC discussing strategy for the next phase of its development, and this week saw the final formal event of FoodWasteNet (FWN, pictured below) which I’ve had the honour and pleasure of Chairing over the past couple of years. Alongside two of the other NIBBs, FWN’s work will continue in the newly-formed Biomass Biorefinery Network (BBNet) where I’ll also be playing a part. It was gratifying to have a representative of BBSRC at the FWN meeting describing how the delivery of the NIBB concept has far outstripped their expectations of the scheme. Great credit is due to the people who have given up their time to run all of the NIBBs, and the membership they have attracted.
I’ve been directly involved with some of the research projects and heard presentations on many more, and they have certainly enabled businesses to access academic resource and build relationships which would not otherwise have happened. Industrial biotechnology is all around us every day and has a long history in the food and beverage sector. Beer and bread are obvious examples which have been around for millennia, and Quorn and other meat-replacement products are newer examples of foodstuffs. Words are important, though; the term ‘industrial biotechnology’ is not an entirely comfortable one and could seem a bit Frnakenstein-ey to many. There are other terms which will be more accessible to the general public and I expect there will be a drift in that direction, so as to make the field seem less forbidding.
Preventing waste from arising in the first place must always come before valorisation, and there is a welcome focus on prevention in the food waste roadmap being rolled out by the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD) and the Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP). I’ve worked previously with both organisations on subjects including food waste, which has proved to be an persistent challenge for a range of reasons. The world has moved on in a number of ways, not least the welcome moves from DEFRA to address some of the structural issues in the recently-published resources and waste strategy among other initiatives. The devolved governments in Scotland and Wales have also done much good work in this area and Zero Waste Scotland presented at IBioIC’s recent annual conference (see ‘Deeply Dippy’). Preliminary preparations for IBioIC’s 2020 conference are already underway, incidentally, and I’ll be involved on the advisory committee for this as I was for this year’s event.
Back to IGD and WRAP and their ‘Target, Measure, Act’ methodology, which sets a standard format for organisations across the sector to understand food waste and how to set internal priorities. The event was generously hosted bat the Coop’s Manchester HQ and delegates included representatives from across the Coop’s supply base and beyond. It wasn’t all one-way theory from the lectern; there were some real-world case-studies and discussion group sessions giving delegates the chance to help enhance future material (shown below). Like so many other challenges, food waste is a systemic issue which needs multi-actor change if we are to see meaningful and lasting improvement.
Physical waste in the agri-food system isn’t limited to food and drink products; packaging is there too, and has been in the limelight for over a year since the airing of Blue Planet II. ‘Stranded assets’ is a term that has gained currency largely in the context of fossil fuels; valuation of petroleum businesses changes markedly if their oil and gas reserves cannot be sold. That isn’t the only sector where there is a challenge around old business models, of course. Shopping centres are at risk from home delivery and a possible future of in-home 3D printing. Packaging manufacturers are having to react to the global reaction to marine and other pollution. What is the value of a plastic bag factory when no-one wants to buy plastic bags? It has been said by many people, me included, that plastic is not the problem per se. Plastic in the wrong place is the problem, but the overall system has grown up without taking into account the externalities of each component of the plastic-dependent culture which has come into existence through the independent actions of thousands of actors over decades.
A Food Ethics Council Business Forum meeting this week addressed this question, bringing in perspectives from a number of parts of the system including retail, foodservice, manufacturing, agriculture, think-tanks and more peripheral actors including legal specialists and investors. Of course, there were no silver bullets, but encouragingly there was near-universal agreement on the challenges and some of the things that we collectively need to do better. As with the food waste example above, acknowledging the systems nature of the problem and the necessarily multi-disciplinary nature of how it needs to be addressed are a good start. The current government consultations give us all an opportunity to get involved, so we should all make the most of it. There is scope for fundamental and lasting change, and regulators need to understand the realities of the complex system they’re seeking to improve.