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Innovation That Sustains: Delivering More Sweetness with Less Land

Industry Matters Newsletter

By: Florian Schattenmann, CTO and VP of R&D at Cargill 

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Florian Schattenmann, CTO and VP of R&D at Cargill

The world is facing a massive challenge. The global population is growing by about one percent each year1, while increasing urbanization is projected to result in about two percent less agricultural land by 20302. How do we feed more people with less land?

At Cargill, innovation is one way we work to address this challenge. Our company’s purpose is to nourish the world in a safe, responsible and sustainable way. We believe that sustainability values and agricultural development can simultaneously thrive, and we are committed to finding innovative solutions to protect our planet in ways that are economically viable for farmers. It’s why we support the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and why we’ve gone beyond the SDGs to make our own bold commitments.

One area we’ve been leading the way is with stevia products. For those unfamiliar with how high intensity sweeteners are made using stevia (as I was prior to joining Cargill), we start with the stevia plant. Within the leaves there are a variety of steviol glycosides, several of which have been found to deliver the heightened sweetness. Two of the best tasting steviol glycosides are Reb M and Reb D. Unfortunately, these two molecules are only found in trace amounts in the stevia leaf, which means that it takes a lot of plants and a lot of land to generate these high intensity stevia sweeteners. Today, there are three primary ways to produce stevia sweeteners: agronomy, bioconversion and fermentation. At Cargill, we take a two-pronged approach to stevia sustainability – making traditional agronomy more sustainable and using (bio)technology to reduce our environmental footprint.

Using agronomy, stevia plants are harvested, dried, steeped and purified to get to the steviol glycosides that are used in stevia sweeteners. To support this method, Cargill developed the most comprehensive sustainability program in the stevia industry. And we were the first to implement the Stevia Sustainable Agricultural Standard for stevia leaf plantation, beginning in Argentina in 2010 and then in China in 2013. The Stevia Sustainability Standard includes more than 40 critical and major items and participating growers undergo robust third-party audits each year to remain compliant. You can find more information about our Stevia Sustainability Standard on our website, or watch this brief video to learn more:

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But we did not stop there. Our commitment to sustainability drove us to look for innovative ways to drastically reduce our environmental footprint. We saw the advantages of leveraging age-old fermentation with a modern twist to produce stevia in a more sustainable way by using specially crafted yeast. We partnered with another industry leader, DSM, to form a joint venture called Avansya to bring these new products to market. Through this work, we found that fermentation offers significant sustainable advantages over bioconversion or traditional agronomy methods, including less by-products and waste, less carbon dioxide production and less land use. We’re in the process of completing an independent study of fermentation versus bioconversion and our initial findings suggest that fermentation reduces the land needed by up to four times, reduces overall impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity by 85%, and its carbon footprint by a factor of 2.5.

This pioneering use of fermentation is just one example of how we’re using innovation to deliver on our purpose to nourish the world in a safe, responsible and sustainable way.

[1] https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/
[2] https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2016/12/20/1606036114/tab-figures-data
(Christopher Bren d’Amour, Femke Reitsma, Giovanni Baiocchi, Stephan Barthel, Burak Güneralp, Karl-Heinz Erb, Helmut Haberl, Felix Creutzig, and Karen C. Seto)

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

Copyright 2020 American Chemical Society (All Rights Reserved)

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