March 01st 2023

Value beyond appearance – vegetables with potential

Following the recurrent media presence of vegetable residues in Tyrolean vegetable fields every year, MCI is addressing this residue problem as part of the VerStraGem project and is developing utilization strategies.

A team of the Department of Environmental, Process and Energy Engineering at MCI is currently working on the VerStraGem project (Recycling Strategy for Vegetable Residues) and has recently presented the results of their two-year research. First of all, surveys were conducted with the aim of carrying out an acceptance analysis of the trade in Tyrolean vegetable residues (e.g. crooked vegetables). Based on the survey among the farmers as producers of these vegetable residues, the further surveys were conceptualized in view of possible distribution channels. For this purpose, potential actors from food retail, gastronomy and processing as well as potential end consumers were interviewed. The aim of this project was to obtain reliable data on the amount of vegetable residues in Tyrol. Based on personal interviews with farmers, harvest monitoring in the field and secondary research, the vegetable residues were quantified and their suitability for human consumption was estimated.  Based on this, various utilization paths are now being tested in local practical trials and further developed together with the project partners.

The project can be roughly divided into two main agendas. On one hand, the primary goal is to promote the further use of vegetable residues as food. Every year, about 7,500 tons of edible vegetables from Tyrolean primary production are rejected from our food chain due to non-standard appearance "flaws" (too big, too small, crooked, stains, etc.) and therefore wasted. However, the survey showed that the willingness of potential consumers to buy is very high compared to the perceived scarcity. Farmers and food retailers, on the other hand, have concerns about customer acceptance and profitability of the extra effort.

In addition to these rejected foods, Tyrolean agriculture also produces vegetable residues that are no longer suitable for consumption. This is the result of natural and weather-related rotting processes. In addition, in the case of certain vegetable cultures, the cleaning residues that arise during the processing of the vegetables for the market are also significant. In total, this results in about 13,000 tons of vegetable residues per year, whose utilization path is being investigated as a second major research focus in the form of energetic and material utilization. A cascading use of these residues is favored in order to exploit the energetic potential before the material use as compost. In order to transform this concept from theory to reality, the construction of an agricultural biogas plant would be envisioned. This would close the material cycle and return the products from the soil to their origin. Almost 200 hectares of agricultural land could be supplied with compost per year with the cascading use. In addition, an energy benefit of about three GWh per year could be derived from the process.

VerStraGem is a cooperative project led by MCI | The Entrepreneurial School® and with the participation of Agrarmarketing Tirol and a partner consortium consist of: TIGAS-Erdgas Tirol GmbH, Tyrol Chamber of Agriculture, Tyrolean Vegetable Growers Association, ATM (Abfallwirtschaft Tirol Mitte) and Tyrol Chamber of Commerce, with the aim of developing a sustainable recycling strategy for vegetable residues in the Tyrolean context.