Almond co-products: Almond Board targets circular economy potential in feed and farming

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11 Jun 2018 --- Food waste is an industry issue for consumers and suppliers alike. Everyone is becoming much more conscious of the role they play in the food waste chain, whether they are a consumer, retailer or food supplier. As a result, the Almond Board of California (ABC) is looking into the potential for almond co-products. In 2017, almond farmers in California grew 2.1 billion pounds of the kernels that are sold in stores and another 4.3 billion pounds of hulls. And according to the ABC, there is now a deeper focus on doing more with the hulls, ensuring that they’re put to beneficial use rather than sent to a landfill.

Speaking to FoodIngredientsFirst, Dr. Karen Lapsley, Chief Scientific Officer at the Almond Board of California says that the almond industry is focused on proactively identifying innovative and high-value uses for almond co-products. “In general, we’re seeing an increased focus on doing more with the food we produce. It’s not just about reducing our footprint, it’s about looking for new and innovative uses for food products that may solve potential issues or provide benefits elsewhere,” she says. 

The almond industry is helping to drive this forward – with a focus on proactively identifying innovative and high-value uses for almond co-products. “It’s an important industry responsibility and one we want consumers to feel confident we are taking seriously,” explains Lapsley.  

Currently, California almond farmers and processors practice environmental responsibility and are working towards a zero-waste approach, ensuring that every part of the almond tree is used. Almonds grow in a shell, protected by a hull, on a tree. The trees store carbon and are transformed into electricity at the end of their lives, the shells become livestock bedding, and the hulls are used as dairy feed. According to Lapsley, the ABC is exploring new uses for the co-products of almonds such as insect feed, biobased plastics and coloring for the tire industry. 

For Lapsley, this innovative area of research has been driving the focus on almond co-products. “With recent shifts in the market for traditional uses such as livestock bedding and dairy feed, and increasing almond acreage, the almond community is doubly focused on finding even better – and hopefully value-added – uses for hulls, shells and trees. Over the last year alone, the California almond industry has invested over US$500,000 in co-products research through the Almond Board of California to help propel it further,” she notes. 

On farms, University of California researchers are experimenting with adding shells and hulls to the soil to improve quality and reduce pests, while at USDA and University of California labs, research is underway to find out how almond hulls and shells can be transformed to provide value to other industries such as food, pharmaceuticals, automotive and more.

“For example, we’re working with USDA researchers to look at how to extract sugar from almond hulls, which can be used in a variety of ways,” Lapsley continues. “Honeybees are commonly fed high-fructose corn syrup as a supplemental winter feed source, but researchers are testing if bees prefer almond hull sugar instead. Another option is to use the extracted sugar for beverages like teas.”

Once the sugars have been removed, the remaining hull material still has value, says Lapsley. “A promising approach is using the spent hulls as a growing medium for specialty mushrooms, an alternative to traditional peat moss which is often imported and expensive.”

An alternative approach for almond hulls involves using them directly as a feedstock for insect farming. The University of California researchers are feeding hulls to black soldier fly larvae to produce a high protein feed source for poultry and aquaculture. 

“Almond shells have great potential too,” claims Lapsley. “In one process being investigated in the USDA lab, almond shells are heated to high temperatures in the absence of oxygen, which transforms the shells into a charcoal-like product. That material can then be used to strengthen post-consumer recycled plastics, adding color and heat stability. Those biobased plastics could strengthen recycled plastics.”  

If these almond co-products could be brought to a commercial scale, Lapsley believes there would be an even more significant opportunity for almond farmers and processors to support California with the creation of genuine bio-economies, where every by-product is an input for another valuable product. “At present, the California almond industry supports more than 100,000 jobs and contributes US$21 billion to the state’s GDP. The possibilities these new research areas hold are endless and – beyond additional economic value – will also bring environmental benefits,” she states. 

What other trends does this relate to?
Food waste is an environmental and economic global issue that is simply impossible to ignore for businesses, producers, suppliers, and consumers alike. In recent years, the drive and desire to move towards a circular economy has moved from the few to the many – with industries and businesses investigating how they can create a supply chain where resources are kept in a cycle as long as possible, for maximum value, replacing older and linear make, use, dispose systems of production. 

“We know this is what consumers want – Innova Market Insights’ top ten trends of 2018 revealed that ‘Mindful Choices’ and ‘Positively Processed’ products will be essential criteria for manufacturers and consumers over the next 12 months and beyond.” 

“The almond industry’s co-product efforts fit directly into these larger trends,” Lapsley adds. 

“For every pound of almonds grown, we get two pounds of hulls and, with a growing industry, we know we’ll continue to have co-products to put to good use.” 

“We plan our research and innovation in this area directly against the number of almonds we forecast will be grown. We know there will always be evolving uses for almond co-products, so the more we keep growing, the more we’ll continue to innovate,” she stresses.  

California almond growers and processors are committed to continuous improvement and the way they utilize their co-products is no different. “By taking a zero-waste approach and ensuring everything our orchards grow are put to good use, we can provide value, not just to farmers, but to our local communities and environment as well. So, while we have a foundation of traditional uses from the past, this truly is a new beginning to our co-products story.”

Looking to the future, Lapsley remains very positive: “Based on where we are today, perhaps in five years we’ll all be driving around on almond shell-based tires in vehicles powered with ethanol from almond sugars. And when we stop at the local market we’ll be able to pick up a pint of refreshing almond hull beer, gourmet mushrooms grown on spent almond hulls, and compostable dinnerware strengthened with almond shells,” she concludes.

By Elizabeth Green

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