Large quantities of water, energy and feed are lost during the processing of vegetables and potatoes. At the VEG-i-TEC research centre, scientists from Ghent University are working with the centre's partner organisations Flanders' FOOD, Howest, VITO and Vlakwa to re-examine vegetable and potato processing from A to Z. The Flemish Minister for Economy, Innovation and Agriculture, Hilde Crevits, opened the building, which is located on Ghent University's campus in Kortrijk.

VEG-i-TEC is a ‘living lab’ operated by Ghent University, which focuses on the vegetable and potato-processing industries. Whether commissioned by companies or not, the research centre is tasked with identifying innovations that have the potential to make the sector not only circular but also more sustainable.

“West Flanders is home to the successful food industry and focusing on innovation and research will enable the industry to maintain its leading position. With the opening of the new VEG-i-TEC research centre, our region has gained a true jewel in its crown that will not only enable our Flemish SMEs to implement more sustainable solutions but will also attract expertise and talent to our region. Together with the Flemish region, we are also proud to invest €3 million in this initiative in the form of ERDF funding,” said the Flemish Minister, Hilde Crevits.

Sustainable, healthy and tasty

First and most importantly, the bad news: our potato chips are ‘threatened with extinction’ and it's all down to a water shortage. The varieties of potato most frequently grown here are not accustomed to the dry seasons we have witnessed these past few years. The potatoes themselves are actually getting smaller, while we prefer our chips to be nice and long.
Together with their partners, Flanders’ FOOD, Howest, VITO and Vlakwa, researchers from Ghent University are working to identify solutions to this problem in the form of different varieties and processing techniques.

This research is taking place at the VEG-i-TEC, Ghent University's new research centre situated on its campus in Kortrijk.“Our mission is to make the food industry sustainable and circular. But we intend to go further – our aim is to find out how to ensure that vegetables and potatoes are not only healthy, but taste good too,” says the project leader, Prof. Imca Sampers. “In order to achieve that, we will place the entire chain under the microscope, from the raw materials to the final product, and that is what makes VEG-i-TEC unique. In the past, we didn't consider the whole picture and then found that the transfer from a controlled setting in the laboratory to the factory floor – which is home to countless unpredictable parameters – was too large a step for our solutions to be capable of being used in practice. But examining every step in the process, as we are doing now, will make it easier for our findings to be translated into a form that can be used in the industry.” And it is already clear that businesses appreciate this new approach – VEG-i-TEC has already received over fifty research requests.

Water management is high on the wish list

In the coming period, VEG-i-TEC will be paying a lot of attention to the increasing scarcity of water. The scarcity of water not only poses a threat to the potato chip but is also one of the biggest challenges facing the entire food industry in West Flanders and Europe as a whole. That is why water management is high on the sector's wish list. It therefore comes as no surprise to learn that in the VEG-i-TEC building, an entire (waste) water treatment hall has been set up.

Prof. Imca Sampers: “Today, business mainly treat their wastewater before ultimately discharging large quantities of it and only part of that water goes on to be re-used. How can we do things better and most of all, how can it be done safely? 
Businesses are looking to us to find out what parameters, such as potential pathogens, need to be monitored in order to guarantee water quality and what they can do to keep pesticides out of the wastewater, etc. 

The benefit of having our own research centre is that we are now in a position to be able to try out all types of worst-case scenarios before supplying our responses. In the past, we carried out testing at the premises of companies, which meant that we were not in a position to consider the whole picture.”

Less waste

During the production processes for vegetables and potatoes, not only a lot of water is lost, but much of the vegetables themselves end up in the waste bin. Even then, they still have potential – slivers of potato that are too small to be turned into potato chips are still full of proteins and colorants can also be extracted from the pulp generated by the fruit industry. That way, the by-products can enjoy a second life as foods, but also in cosmetics, crop protection or in the textile industry.

Less plastic

Plastic forms another obstacle within the food industry – the packaging materials. To reduce the mountain of plastic, the sector aims to increase its efforts to use recyclable or biologically based materials that have a less harmful impact on the environment. Nevertheless, the quality and safety of our food must not be jeopardised, of course.

That is why VEG-i-TEC is working to identify alternatives to conventional plastics.

Prof. Imca Sampers: “Not only are we seeking to identify the right combination of packaging, food production and packaging technique, but we also test them out in practice. That way, we will be able to see what can go wrong within the process and can intervene if necessary. In order to safeguard quality, we are working with machine producers to build packaging machines that are easy to clean and focus on the use of recyclable, biologically based or re-usable packagings.”

VEG-i-TEC was created thanks to support from organisations such as the European Fund for Regional Development (ERDF Flanders), the Flemish Hermes Fund, the provinces of West Flanders and East Flanders, the France-Wallonia-Flanders Interreg programme (FWVL), Flanders’ FOOD, the House of Nutrition, Ghent University, Belgapom and Cargill.


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