Whey protein: a role model for the new bioeconomy

Developing and broadening the bioeconomy is of crucial importance to coping with the world’s challenges – and the whey protein industry stands as a textbook example of bioeconomic potential.

Lene Lange
Lene Lange Professor (ret.), PhD et Dr.Scient.

It may not be as familiar as the much-talked-about idea of a new, circular economy. But we are also witnessing the dawn of a new ‘bioeconomy’ – a model that can contribute to the broader concept of a circular economy by applying technology to use our biological resources more responsibly, wasting much less.

Essentially, a bioeconomy can be described as a new approach to managing global and local bio-resources, focusing on minimising food waste and upgrading industrial sidestreams and crop residues to create value-added products. The bioeconomy promises to improve resource efficiency, strengthen industrial competitiveness, create jobs, mitigate climate change through bio-based substitutes for fossil-based fuels, chemicals and materials, and last, but not least, improve food and feed supply. 

Delivering new value
So where are we today in terms of delivering all this value? As I see it, we are on the verge of transitioning from our fossil- and synthetics-driven era to a new, bio-based one. And the pace is  starting to accelerate, extending bioeconomic thinking and technologies to new frontiers. 

Where the bioeconomy began with biofuel, one of the most promising areas of expansion today is in upgrading production sidestreams – taking the waste created during agriculture-based food production, for example, and converting it into useful, value-added products.

Why are such sidestreams particularly interesting from a bioeconomic point of view? Because, in many cases, they’re ready-made raw materials that have already been screened and processed to some degree. And they are likely to be gathered in one place. This all helps to lower the cost of arriving at a final product.

Impressive example
One of the most impressive examples of unlocking the full potential of a bio-based production sidestream is that of the whey processing industry, which has contributed to a more sustainable use of the global bio-resources by turning whey waste from cheesemaking into useful products. 

The production of whey protein and its associated extractions has all the elements of an efficient bioeconomic system: knowledge-based technologies; sophisticated, upscaled processing; responsible consumption; and, importantly, a way to create a more competitive industry (the dairy industry) able to utilise the full potential of its raw material inputs.

This latter point is not just a nice-to-have, but a must-have. Building the bioeconomy is far more than an exercise in corporate social responsibility – it’s a great step forward: promising improved use of our biological resources, delivered through strategic, knowledge-based business development. Thus, it fulfills the three bottom lines of sustainability (social, environmental, and financial).

Creating jobs
From a social perspective, the whey processing industry has, during the last few decades, expanded  to become an industry that creates and sustains jobs at both urban and rural levels, including both blue and white collar jobs. In fact, the more of whey’s potential that is unlocked, the more jobs with a variety of skillsets that are created. 

It’s those rural jobs, in particular, that the new bioeconomy is especially good at creating – helping to ensure that we don’t just support urban societies but also rural ones with livelihoods, social inclusiveness and other vital components of a balanced existence. This job potential is of special importance to me, and it’s one of the reasons I devote so much of my time and passion to encouraging bioeconomic awareness and action, locally as well as globally.

Cooperative culture
In Denmark, where I live, it’s interesting to note that the industries leading the industrial drive toward the bioeconomy are primarily cooperative-based. The cooperative movement was a cornerstone of economic and social entry of the Danish society into the industrial era, enabling us to build education, health care systems and infrastructures by sharing both the costs and the learning. The strength of the cooperative business model within the bioeconomy is that it opens the door to insight and control over the entire value chain; from the field to the consumer. 

The Danish whey processing industry was established upon this foundation, too. And we’re seeing that pay off in the ability to produce whey ingredients at a premium for, for example, infant formula, which is increasingly demanding pharma-like quality and food safety.

Taking it further
From its starting point with the establishment of local, cooperative dairies, the dairy has become, in fact, an efficient knowledge management and knowledge-sharing centre: It has supported the farmers in primary production by educating them on how to control bacteria and improve hygiene. And it did this with a clear incentive structure: higher prices for their milk. Today, too, the dairy industry receives the milk and gives back its know-how to improve the entire system.  

Dairy is an excellent example of how to make the most of new technologies, but it definitely doesn’t stand alone. Let me highlight two other Nordic examples: In Denmark, another successful cooperative company (KMC) is, in fact, a highly sophisticated biorefinery, unlocking the full potential of its feed-stock – locally grown potatoes. This cooperative is able to utilise these raw materials to obtain their full potential, creating jobs and commanding impressive global market shares. 

The second example is from Iceland, where a cooperatively owned, fishery-based company (Codland) has managed to develop and refine its technologies to such an extent that today, more than 90% of the fish is being used as a basis for new value-added products. 

The big question now is: How can we apply similar models to other agriculture, fishery and forestry-based industries? And how can we also exploit the potential health upsides of the bioeconomy by developing, for example, new gut health-promoting food ingredients and feed additives from enzymatic biorefinery conversion of plant cell wall materials of both green and yellow biomass?

Copy-paste partnerships
We need to be able to move more quickly in copy-pasting successful bioeconomic models from one application to the next, and from one part of the world to another. Establishing a partnership among the Nordic countries, for example, or between the EU and Africa, joining forces for better use of their biological resources. Right now, almost 50% of these resources are going to waste while, at the same time, the African population is growing rapidly and agricultural yield is challenged (and expected to be compromised) by climate change. 

Only through such measures will we be able to meet the world’s challenges before they grow to overwhelming proportions. And, for the companies that are key to driving this change, it’s about adopting a mindset of integrated collaboration with research institutes while simultaneously promoting their businesses through faster use of new knowledge and advanced technologies, enabling them to contribute much more for the good of the world.

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