Innovations in the Circular Economy: Closing the Loop in Food Production

This article was first published by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Singapore, and is based on a dialogue session with Professor Louise O. Fresco, president of Wageningen University and Research (WUR), on the circular economy in the Netherlands – a government programme with a goal for nationwide development by 2050.

Professor Louise O. Fresco, President, Wageningen University and Research (WUR) (middle) stands with (L-R) Ms Nienke Gelderloos, Agricultural Policy Advisor & Liaison Manager, and Her Excellency Ambassador Margriet Vonno from the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Singapore; Mr Edwin Seah, Head of Communications, Food Industry Asia (FIA); and Ms Claudia Artz, Executive Director, ADB-DutchCham, after a dialogue session discussing the Dutch circular economy and related recommendations and shareable practices, on 23 March in Singapore.

Today we are at the brink of great change. In a turbulent world, our traditional linear ways of thinking are challenged. We have a number of big issues to tackle. Feeding almost 10 billion people by 2050 – mainly in metropolitan areas, while taking good care of scarce resources – can only be done in circular approaches. Professor Louise O. Fresco, president of Wageningen University and Research (WUR), shared her vision over breakfast during a networking meeting on 23 March in Singapore, organised by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in SingaporeADB-DutchCham and Food Industry Asia (FIA).

This year, Wageningen University and Research (WUR) celebrates its 100th-year anniversary. WUR started off as an agricultural university, and is now looking more holistically into urban systems. Foundations of the ways of working that make WUR successful are a firm belief in science-based approaches, and many long-time partnerships. An example of science-based approaches is the contribution of WUR to biological control, using natural ecological methods. As a result of WUR’s research, pesticide used in some crops dropped to only 20 per cent of previous use. The partnerships WUR treasures are both with larger and smaller businesses, as well as with individuals, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and government authorities.

Speaking of science-based approaches, Professor Fresco highlighted that with the upcoming changes, we need to be prepared to invest in innovation and so-called living labs. They may not automatically be a success, but we can draw lessons from (partial) failures. For instance, in preparing for a post-fossil fuel world, we need to think about substitutes both in terms of energy and in terms of biochemistry. Biofuels are a good example – although they do offer an alternative to fossil fuel, the conversion of land crops to produce energy is not a good use of resources, and only works with subsidies. Yet, biomass and the end of a “cascading” pipeline of a circular economy can contribute to the energy mix, next to saving energy.

  Professor Louise O. Fresco, President, Wageningen University and Research (WUR), speaks on ways to manage waste and influence consumer behaviour, during a dialogue session discussing the Dutch circular economy on 23 March in Singapore.

Water and waste

Much progress has been made in water and waste water treatment; waste water streams from industry facilities and households are mostly still discharged into the sea or surface waters. In a multi-step cleaning process, we’re able to retrieve the most essential components, such as enzymes, lipids and minerals; what is left is water that can be used for the flushing of toilets. We have to start thinking of installing dual water streams, for both drinking and semi-clean water. We will have to be more selective in the types of water we use for which purposes, and use waste or brackish water where possible. Moreover, drinking water quality is not always necessary for peri-urban food production, but care should still be taken concerning food safety aspects.

Food-waste reduction is high on the list of topics to address. Per capita, about 50 kilograms (kg) of food is wasted per year, but this can be as high as 150kg in some countries. In Europe food waste alone is equivalent to 8 per cent of greenhouse gasses. Animals, and especially insects, can play an important role in this part of the chain, by turning food waste into edible proteins. It is not likely that these insects will be for human consumption. They can serve as feed for fish and poultry. This is a good start of a circular model. If you see animals as converters, they can help us with discarded food, and even offal, from slaughter houses. Animals are a necessary step in a circular economy, and meat will remain part of a healthy diet. Meat provides proteins and iron, which are especially important for children and pregnant women. Moderation of the amounts of meat consumed will be important. Professor Fresco stressed that it is recommendable not have the full circular approach at an operational level right from the start – you can leave some gaps and bridge those step by step.

Consumer behaviour

Prevention of waste is as important as dealing with waste – one could think of using legislation to manage consumer behaviour. How do we control what we waste? Chips on garbage bags probably go too far, but more control is very likely to emerge over time. For instance, in the municipality of Wageningen, twelve types of waste streams are collected. Citizens have electronic access to be able to throw away waste. In general, the basis of regulation will be the principle that “the polluter pays”. On the other hand, it goes without saying that prevention of waste is the best way. An important reason for many good-quality products to be wasted is the high-quality acceptance standards by supermarkets. Initiatives like Kromkommer (a soup producer that uses only deformed or excess produce) and the opening of supermarket shelves last week with only products that otherwise would have gone to waste are good examples how these streams can be valorised. Something else we can do is the planning of surplus waste caused by seasonality, like tomatoes. Good planning and block chain technology, for instance, could help to optimise the use of seasonal surplus.

  Her Excellency Ambassador Margriet Vonno, Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Singapore, gives a welcome address to open the dialogue session on the Dutch circular economy, held in conjunction with ADB-DutchCham and Food Industry Asia (FIA), on 23 March in Singapore.


Growing food, especially horticultural crops, in buildings is more productive than open-field production. In basements, inside and on top of buildings technologies with LED and closed cycles such as aquaponics, are highly productive. Cycles could also include poultry production. We have steered away from poultry in densely built-up areas due to the avian influenza scares. With the help of very sensitive sensors that can detect fever, flu can be signalled early on, and controlled at a very early stage. When working with well-closed off facilities, poultry production could be reintroduced in cities. An additional benefit of poultry-farming is that it is very efficient in conversion ratio. At the same time, a shift toward more aquaculture can be expected. This phenomenon is a part of “blue growth”, which also includes the integrated development of coastal and marine areas. Fish can be fed both animal and terrestrial waste, which makes their potential in Singapore and other large cities great. In the example of fish farms, if they were to look into algae farming, they would be able to produce raw materials for other types of farming.

Food supply in metropolitan areas

Professor Fresco’s ideas on how food supply in cities is likely to be organised in the future is as follows: We will obtain the bulk of our calories, our staple foods, from outside of the city. Rice, wheat, maize and the like are less suitable for indoor growth. The transportation of these bulk products into the city will be a problem, however. Our fresh products, such a vegetables, fish and poultry will be farmed close by, or inside, cities. This implies a mixed supply chain model. Pork needs more space and will be farmed outside of the more densely populated areas. Cows are ideal for grasslands in rural areas that are less or not suitable for growing crops.

Within the cities, distribution and packaging are key. We are not able to eradicate the use of plastics, as they help to preserve food quality, but plastics must be biodegradable, and plastic streams separated. An example is a cucumber wrapped in plastic, which can then stay fresh for two more weeks than it would without a plastic wrapping. Glass bottles are good alternatives, but the return stream has proven to be difficult to organise. At the same time, we could ask ourselves whether the metropolitan areas are impossible to manage, given the technical challenges in the legal, fiscal, regulatory and consumer behaviour aspects, and so on. At the same time, if we just get started and adopt technology and evidence-based techniques, the future looks quite bright. Digitalisation is going to be of tremendous help.

  Professor William Chen, Director, Food Science and Technology Programme (FST), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), shares about efforts by NTU and the Singapore government to implement and promote sustainable practices through scientific methods, such as exploring the area of natural food preservatives and developing packaging materials from waste, in working toward a circular economy.

Ms Nienke Gelderloos is the Agricultural Policy Advisor & Liaison Manager for the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Singapore.

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