Think of the forgotten half of the harvest

Dr. Tom Simmons, Founder and CEO, The Supplant Company.

Perhaps the most unavoidable signs of trouble in today’s supply chain empty shelves and increased prices at supermarkets. Tariffs and inflation are the direct causes of this, but population growth and climate change will increase pressure on supply over the next century. For example, it is estimated we need 60% more food to feed the population of 2050, despite not having 60% more land. This is a challenge compounded by the unpredictability that climate change brings to crop production.

Using sustainable resources to produce all consumer products, from food to cosmetics to home care, will be a major necessary step forward for supply chains in the coming years. Crop production is an important potential resource for this. How can we best prepare plant agriculture for a sustainable future?

Food waste starts on the farm

Particularly in the field of food, a well-known lever to reduce delivery stress is to limit waste. Both businesses and governments are making commitments to reduce it, and a growing number of companies are committed to convert food waste into new products.

Where is this food waste? Many consumers think about it mainly at their table or in the supermarket, but just as much as 30% occur on or shortly after leaving the farm. That is 1.2 billion tons lost for reaching the supermarket!

But as surprising as this amount is, even this vastly underestimates the amount of vegetable agricultural waste produced before it reaches the supermarket. That’s because these numbers only count the part of the plant that is conventionally considered the “product” – the grain, beans, starch, sugar, oil, etc. – which is actually the minority of what is produced during the crop production is grown.

The forgotten half of the harvest

The missing majority that these numbers fail to account for is what I call “the forgotten half of the crop,” but in reality it’s significantly more than half. It is made from the structural parts of the plant that are left behind: the stems, straw, hulls, husks, cobs, etc.

On a tonnage basis, more of these fibrous by-products are produced on farms each year than all of the grain, beans, starch, sugar, and oil combined. For both wheat and rice, twice as many side streams are produced as grain. In front of sugar caneit is four times as much as total sugar production.

Fibrous side streams are therefore by far the largest source of waste in plant cultivation. Of course, not everything is wasted, but almost everything is underused. Some of it becomes animal litter, animal food or biofueland some are plowed back into fields. But in today’s economy, a lot has net zero value: every year more rice straw is burned in fields than the total amount of rice produced.

With this perspective, the probability of using so-called agricultural waste is four to twelve times greater than the food waste figures indicate. The scale is there to make an impact, and the price stability is an attractive base to build new industries. Finally, because fibrous side streams are a product of the amount of energy, fertilizers and emissions that generally go into crop cultivation, we have a moral obligation to make the best use of them.

Fibrous pioneers

Many companies are already innovating in making fibrous sidestream-derived materials food ingredients, cosmetics and personal care products. For example, Upcircle incorporates oat hulls into facial cleansers to act as a texture modifier and exfoliant, and The Supplant Company makes food ingredients from oat hulls and corn on the cob, though they can use almost all of the main crop sidestreams.

These products can add value from all directions: healthier, more sustainable and more accessible, they are a perfect example of what can happen if we start to see the forgotten half of the harvest not as waste to be processed, but as an opportunity to realize.

Just as petrochemical refining led to the creation of several new industries, innovative uses for the forgotten half of the harvest will lead to brand new approaches to materials economics, but this time using the solid foundations of a sustainable raw material. Business Council is the premier growth and networking organization for entrepreneurs and leaders. Am I eligible?