The Western European food chain is very inefficient, says Johan Sanders, professor ‘biobased commodity chemicals’ at Wageningen UR. We could greatly reduce imports, mainly of soy, by improving efficiency. ‘Each Western European consumes 2 500 kcal a day. But our society uses a stunning 50 000 kcal per person to deliver this food to the plate. This figure is the addition of all contributions, like (recycling of) fertilizer, transports and industrial processing, the energy needed for preparation of the meal and storing foodstuff at home in the freezer, leading to losses in the form of food thrown away, rot and eating by vermin, unused side products, manure and waste heat. In other words, the efficiency of our food chain is a meagre 5%.’
‘Consequentially, Western Europe has a much larger footprint than its own surface,’ says Sanders. For, says he, in order to sustain this inefficient food chain, Western Europe has to import much food and feed grown elsewhere. This is particularly true for the Netherlands with its large livestock. The Dutch agricultural acreage is about 2 million hectares; but Dutch food production (including exports) requires some 6 million hectares. If we would counteract inefficiency, by raising efficiency from 5% to a still unimpressive 10%, this acreage could be halved. Moreover, enough energy could be liberated to fuel the entire transport system.
Sanders draws the conclusion that we will have to reduce losses in the food chain. For instance, we do not fully use indigenous production. Biorefinery of local crops like grass and sugar beet (see our recent interview with him) could enhance chain efficiency a great deal. ‘The most important food imports are animal feed, in particular soy meal and rape meal. Brazil is a large supplier. Much soy is grown in the Amazon basin, on land reclaimed on the rain forest. Therefore, reduction of soy imports could be very important. The most important ingredient in soy and comparable crops is the protein fraction. We could reclaim these proteins from Dutch agricultural production, too, by biorefinery. In particular from grass and maize as a feedstock, and in addition to that from (sugar) beet and unused side streams.’
For several years, Johan Sanders has been airing these views. It is about time that society acts upon them.