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The agri-food industry, a major power of the bioeconomy

What does the Covid-19 pandemic impress upon us? The precariousness of the world, the uncertainty of tomorrow. What does it give credibility to ? The interest of creating new models of development. The bioeconomy, which “holds out the hope of making a new industrial dynamic possible, a revitalisation of territories and an ecological transition” is an appropriate response in all its dimensions, and first and foremost in the agri-food industry. Despite the rise of other ways of exploiting biomass, this sector represents 56% of the bioeconomy’s turnover in France and is one of the most innovative industrial sectors.

“In the global overview of the bioeconomy,” confirms Frédéric Bouvier, Science and Technology Advisor at Roquette and president of the IAR Food & Feed Commission, “the agri-food industry retains a dominant share because the world’s population continues to grow. It is in what comes from living things that we will find the food of human beings and animals, which themselves serve as food for human beings.” The major challenge of the sector is not only to produce enough but also to evolve according to societal demands.

Nutrition health

Without going so far as to follow Hippocrates’ dictate : “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food !”, consumers, influenced by experts, show themselves to be predisposed towards food that is wholesome and good for their health. This is leading agri-processors to work towards reducing the salt, sugar and lipid content of everyday food, while taking care to preserve their nutritional and sensory qualities. The big winners of this food rebalancing : plant-based proteins and fibres. We will soon go further : the important activity around the intestinal microbiota should make it possible to refine even more knowledge on the link between diet and health and, in the end, to provide tailored nutritional advice adapted to the genetic profile of each individual.

The contribution of digital

As consumers become more aware and more demanding, they expect no less from the agri-food industry. New tools can meet this need for transparency : from blockchain that can make traceability in the food supply chain easier, to mobile apps such as Yuka or Foodvisor that detail the composition of products to lead the buyer in his choices. Digital is also an aid to innovation and development in the food-health sector. Frédéric Bouvier : “For example, some companies use artificial intelligence to search for peptides in nature that have an impact on consumer health. Once these molecules have been searched for, captured and identified, the aim is either to concentrate them so that they can be more active, or to have them produced by microorganisms (by fermentation).”

For your pleasure

The agri-food industry is following all these paths – and more futuristic ones, such as cell culture or 3D printing – without neglecting an essential factor, especially in a country that has included ”French gastronomy” in the Intangible cultural heritage of humanity : food must continue to be tasty and a source of pleasure. To satisfy the consumer, it is possible for example to play on natural aromas, such as companies Metarom or Lesaffre, which have developed taste-enhancing microorganisms. It is also possible to work on the texture of plant-based proteins to give them pleasant sensory properties, and to make fibres imperceptible in the mouth.

Circular economy

In addition to these trends, there is the one that dominates and connects them: the concern of producing food that is as environmentally friendly as possible. From this environmental standpoint, the agri-food industry has begun a fight against the waste of raw materials and co-products and is moving towards a less linear, more circular economy. In the biorefinery sector, we can mention the Ynsect company which products molecules of interest using the bioconversion capacity of insects, just like microorganisms. These molecules of interest are enhanced as high added value ingredients and can be functionalised if necessary. Thus, the larvae are transformed into powder or oil (intended for animal and soil feed) and co-products (shells, excrement) are also used as feed additives. A similar approach can be applied in the algae biorefinery: 55 000 tons of green algae wash up on the Breton coast every year and could be recovered through bioconversion. Partly used for land application, they are however less profitable in terms of nitrogen than compost based on green waste. In order to recover this fluctuating raw material, the Olmix Group has invested in a biorefinery capable of treating it and extracting the active compounds for use in animal health and nutrition.

Evolving practices.

All these questions mobilise major industrialists who are evolving in different ways. The Bonduelle familial group, which has 56 sites and 14 600 employees worldwide, is working toward B Corp certification and is committed to integration of  sustainable development objectives into its processes. Stéphane Gauthier, IAR Portfolio Research & Development Manager : “We have a program of reflection in connection with our CSR policy : on the design of sustainable packaging by limiting the use of fossil plastics (recyclability, substitute, etc.), or on the recovery of co-products, especially in animal feed and methanization. The aim is to reduce our GHG emissions, water and energy consumption and optimise resources throughout the product life cycle. Our different Business Units integrate these ambitions into their strategy. Our R&D supports on development of innovative pathways in the medium and long-term.”

A real challenge

Is the agri-food chain sufficiently prepared to take up the challenge of an abundant and high-quality production with low environmental impact ? “The problem is that it has to face contradictory rulings” observes Denis Chereau, Managing Director of IMPROVE and vice-chairman of IAR’s Food & Feed Commission. “On the one hand, there are productivity objectives to feed more than 9 billion human beings by 2050 ; on the other hand, a duty to ensure the hand-over of the Earth in good conditions to our descendants.” This in a context of multiple schools of thought and food activism from which no consensus emerges, and with a gap between consumer aspirations in our “rich” countries and the essential nutritional needs of populations in developing countries.

Need for anticipation

Nonetheless, ”The pressure on agricultural resources and agri-food products will increase significantly. As a result, producers of quality food will become more and more strategically important.” Is the French agri-food industry organised to meet these global challenges ? ”We are poorly prepared” Denis Chereau believes. ”We are only managing the crisis instead of anticipating it.” This is notably due to the abandonment of the CAP’s major measures. ”On the contrary, we should have strengthened them to support our suffering agriculture and to revitalise it with virtuous objectives combining productivity and sustainability.” According to him, if we want sustainability, we need to focus more on vegetables, reintroduce diversity in rotations and work on genetic improvement of plants so that they respond even better to current pressure. ”Once this is ensured, the processing industry will also have to adapt to this new diversity.”

Livestock farming : the forgotten victim of bioeconomy ?

Scientific work on the bioeconomy makes little reference to animal production, except for the use of livestock effluents for energy production by methanisation. This omission is all the more surprising given that ”livestock farming systems are, on a global scale, among the main users of biomass and the main users of agricultural land, and that they make a major contribution to soil fertilisation and human food supplies”. In an article published in 2019, researchers from INRA and AgroParisTech wanted to restore them to their rightful place and show their assets (diversity of species, practices and bioresources consumed and produced) and their possible contribution to the development of a circular bioeconomy, whether through flows (raw materials, nitrogenous materials, effluents, human food) or interactions between livestock and crops on a regional scale.

IAR : moving forward

IAR plays an important role in the strategic area of activity of the IAA. By its very nature, it participates in the revitalisation of an entire ecosystem and assists the structures in setting up R&D, innovation and industrialisation projects. It also contributes to the reflection on all subjects of interest identified with its members, such as: the management of protein stock between human food and animal feed, the development of processes and new technologies for biomass transformation, innovation actions around the microbiota of animals which will make it possible to limit the use of medicines to keep them in good health. Not forgetting naturalness and food safety.

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