It’s encouraging to see innovation in practice to look at an often forgotten part of the food production supply chain – agricultural waste. So much focus is given to the consumer journey and end user recycling. However, looking at the beginning of the process not only changes our thinking around all production, but supports those supplying our demand.
When we pick up a piece of fruit, bar of chocolate or package of flour, we don’t often think of the massive amounts of agricultural waste — the stems, leaves, seed pods and more — that never make it off the farm.
Yet the scale of agricultural waste is huge. Globally, crop residues — the plant waste left in the field after harvest — totaled 5 billion metric tons (5.5 billion tons) in 2013, according to a 2018 Brazilian study. A study from South Africa reported that crop residues retained in the field are responsible for 13% of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.
Some of that material is used for organic fertilizer, soil enrichment or animal feed. But plenty is still available for other uses.
Meanwhile, farmers are facing increased economic uncertainty due to climate change, leading to increased rural migration, according to a 2018 report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
As concern about waste grows, researchers and commercial partners around the world are working to turn what’s now being left behind or burned into new, useful products. By doing so, they hope to not only reduce adverse environmental impacts of agriculture, but also provide a new source of income for farmers.