Farmer to pharma? Creating new products from agriculture waste

Basket of apples close up

Agriculture is a key engine of South Australia’s bioeconomy, and according to researchers at the University of Adelaide, the high volume of waste product has hidden value for other industries.

Currently, South Australian growers contribute produce locally and across Australia and the world. Some major local crops include cereals, potatoes, apples, cherries and berries, mushrooms, Brassica vegetables and more.  

Unfortunately, as a result of growing conditions, crop seasons, environmental factors and highly stringent quality criteria (as set by supermarkets), they often end up scrapping up to 50% or more of their product.

This waste matter is currently left to rot in the field, turned into low value products such as compost or animal feed, burned for energy, or simply, the growers pay for waste removal from the farm.

A new Research Consortium Program (RCP), led by University of Adelaide researcher Vincent Bulone, aims to support the primary producers of South Australia by amplifying the value of their waste and turning it into high value products, creating new post-farmgate industries worth over $100 million per annum.

To achieve immediate commercial outcomes, the team are targeting known bioactives and structural compounds prevalent in our local crop biomass. For example, a range of nutraceuticals, health-promoting foods and beverages, pharmaceutical and skincare products (like sunscreen) and high-performance materials can be produced using compounds found in potatoes, mushrooms and waste streams from the brewing industry.

The process of removing these targeted molecules also produces an organic matter that can be fermented into ethanol or converted to ‘green’ oils through different processes, meaning almost all of the original waste produce is recycled for alternative uses.

“We aim to use as close to 100% as possible of the biomass by deriving multiple products from each of the different crops, instead of focusing on a small number of valuable but typically minor molecules,” said Professor Bulone.

“To minimise the volume of residual materials we will sequentially extract a whole range of molecules of interest and exploit their properties in a large diversity of products. We already have a number of prototypes of products that we aim to commercialise in the shortest possible timeframe, such as composite carbohydrate-based materials and products relevant to the cosmetic and skincare sectors.”

“Today, we are just at the beginning of a new collaboration and our aim is to utilise this significant initial investment from the South Australian government, industry and academic partners, to become the centre of gravity for agricultural waste conversion in the State and nationally.”

Tagged in Agriculture, food and wine, skincare, pharmaceuticals, food waste