Food, Water, Waste: Circular Solutions = Sustainable Food Systems

Circular solutions are key to building a more sustainable food system and protecting the natural resources of land and water. In Mexico MicroTERRA is pioneering innovative approaches to building more sustainable food and water systems at the nexus of fish farming, wastewater and alternative proteins.

MicroTERRA is part of UNLEASH, a global innovation program for the SDGs – and a collaboration and network partner of HelloScience.

What problem(s) or challenge(s) is microTERRA working to solve?

The water-food nexus implies that the challenge of feeding 10 billion people by 2050 is inherently linked to water security – with agriculture currently responsible for 70% of global freshwater consumption. Looking forward, fish will be one of the most important protein sources to feed our world’s growing population, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). However, if done incorrectly, this growth could result in vastly increased freshwater demand and increased pollution in rivers and oceans as effluents from wastewater are discharged from farms. The high-pollution, water-intensive nature of traditional inland fish farming could become a major constraint on future food production due to water availability.

In addition, the main inland fish farming producers (aside from Norway and China) are in developing countries, which makes the sustainability challenge also an economic challenge.

How are you innovating to solve those challenges?

For Latin American fish farmers, with low margins, high risk, and large amounts of wastewater, there is a low-tech system that recirculates water, the In-Pond Raceway System or IPRS. The IPRS reduces freshwater consumption, and stops downstream pollution, it requires low operation and it increases fish productivity. This down-to-earth system is accepted and loved by fish farmers, but its cost is the main barrier of adoption.

At microTERRA we upcycle inland fish farming wastewater and use it to grow Lemna. Lemna removes excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus from water, allowing it to be re-used, and thus reducing the need to replace water in the tanks. Simultaneously, Lemna is a highly functional ingredient. By commercializing a Lemna concentrate for the animal feed industry and as an alternative protein, we can provide farmers with another revenue stream by buying the Lemna from them, and incentivizing the adoption of sustainable production systems in Aquaculture.

How is microTERRA working to create more collaborative, systems-focused approaches to the future of food, water and the environment?

MicroTERRA’s solution has positive effects on multiple environmental challenges. We are creating a new ingredient, a Lemna meal, that is full of protein, fiber and pectin. This ingredient has multiple functionalities, as well as a very attractive nutritional profile, making it a sustainable, scalable and affordable option for the plant-based food industry.

In terms of water, this is literally the reason why we started the company. We decided to cultivate our Lemna in fish farms, as inland fish farming requires a large amount of freshwater and discharges a lot of wastewater. Cultivating lemna represents a new source of revenue for fish farmers, which is an economic incentive to recycle their wastewater.

Finally, our solution protects the environment, from the rivers down to the farms to the coasts and the oceans. By preventing wastewater discharges into our rivers and oceans, we are preventing and reducing nutrient pollution that participates in the formation of algae blooms and generates eutrophication and dead zones.

The scalability of our business model relies on the collaboration with fish farmers. By using sharing economy principles, we can produce Lemna at a very low cost and create a win-win situation where the success of a new ingredient for the plant-based food industry directly makes a positive impact on our freshwater resources.

What do you see as the biggest opportunities for fostering collaboration in building the food/water/environmental ecosystems of the future?

Circular solutions are key to building a more sustainable food system, respecting our natural resources, including land and water. We see the wastewater as an incredible opportunity to grow food: Generating food this way has a great impact in protecting our waterways from wastewater discharges. All this being sustainably funded by the revenue from a new food or feed production. We are implementing this model today with lemna and fish farms, at a small scale – as we’re still early stage – but we see enormous potential to grow. Imagine if lemna had a similar market to soy! We could then clean massive areas of wastewater full of nutrients. The collaboration must be between the major food and ag companies, the research institutes and the local farms. By generating this kind of collaboration, we can continue growing what we are doing today.

Are there any specific areas where you are interested in exploring collaborations withmicroTERRA that others in the HelloScience ecosystem might be able to support you?

We are interested in initiatives around wastewater treatment in inland fish farms in tropical countries, in technologies to harness proteins from plants and in any plant-based food project. If you are interested in collaborating with microTERRA in any of these fields, please reach out!

What would you like to see achieved in building more resilient, sustainable food and water ecosystems by 2030?

We’d like to see that the food industry takes advantage of all the by-products of agriculture, for a more sustainable production and to protect the environment around production sites. This will require not only technology to upcycle the by-products (like nutrients in fish ponds wastewater in our case), but also research and investment to fund the growth of solutions and companies to deploy them.

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