Insights from HSRW’s very own researchers
by Hariharan Arevalagam
I was pushing my way through a sea of people, recorder in hand, looking over the heads gathered around the many posters on display. I was at the Akademische Jahresfeier, an annual event held to celebrate the accomplishments of the students and staff of HSRW. The building was abuzz with the voices of researchers presenting their work, the chatter of guests, and the sound of the band rehearsing downstairs. I found a project that caught my eye and made my way over to speak to the researcher. I asked her some questions about her project, hoping that the recorder could capture her voice amid the noise.
©Torsten_Barthel Stephan Hanf, the producer of How to Hochschule, and I testing out recording equipment before the Akademische Jahresfeier
Halfway through our conversation, I realised that I didn’t press record.
This little hiccup did not matter too much, as I already had hours of recordings to sift through from interviewing researchers from HSRW over the past few months.
It occurred to me that the podcast I dabbled in earlier this year was a great platform to showcase some of the research that takes place in this university. A quick Google search led me to the webpage of a large collective of professors and researchers in HSRW called the Sustainable Food Systems Research Centre (SFSRC). I got in touch with the project coordinator, Dr. Katie Meinhold, who invited me to one of their meetings where I pitched the idea for the episode. Before long I ended up with five guests to interview who were all members of the research group.
As I further explored research in HSRW I realised that sustainability was the major driving force behind many of the research activities carried out here. Eventually I was put in contact with HSRW’s Vice President for Research, Innovation & Knowledge Transfer, Prof. Dr. Ing-. Peter Kisters, who was my sixth and final guest. The end product was "How to be Sustainable" - the almost two-hour long episode of the How to Hochschule podcast that was released in July.
What is sustainability?
You're probably no stranger to the word 'sustainability'. It's everywhere. In fact, some would say that the word has been overused. Prof. Dr. Matthias Kleinke, a professor of environmental technologies is one such person. "I am a bit sceptical of the more intensive use of the word 'sustainability'. Most of the things we call 'sustainable' are not sustainable at all". According to him, "we lived in a sustainable way probably 10,000 years back". We went from living in harmony with nature to exploiting it, putting future generations at risk.
"From my point of view, it is quite simple", said Prof. Kisters, when asked the same question. "If we don't use more than is produced during the time of use, it is sustainable. You can use wood for 200 years if you want, and that's the time needed for a tree to grow again. Coal needs millions of years [to form], but we use it in a few hundred. This is for sure not sustainable". A central idea that both these professors brought up was “closing loops”, or circularity.
Circularity aims to emulate nature. Instead of a linear economy, where products are manufactured, used, then disposed of, a circular economy aims to reuse, recycle, and re-manufacture products in order to minimise waste. To illustrate this concept, Prof. Kisters gave me a hypothetical situation of how loops could be closed in the milk industry here in the Lower Rhine region. "We have hundreds of cows here producing milk, but the milk will be transported [outside of the region]. The waste products stay here and contaminate the soil. Each box or bag of milk needs a little bit of waste product on it to be transported so that the circles are closed again. Perhaps somebody can use it for their plants”.
Why does sustainability matter?
In How to be Sustainable, I used the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to give some context for the rest of the episode. It surprised me how some of my everyday comforts were contributing to some of the problems that the SDGs aimed to solve.
As a lover of steaks and schnitzels, I was struck by a sense of guilt while talking to Dr. Conor Watson, a researcher who works with frass - insect larval excrement that can be used as a better fertiliser. Part of the reason frass (itself a byproduct of the insect larvae industry) is more effective than traditional biomass fertilisers is closely related to why the meat industry is one of the usual suspects when talking about global warming. "The amount of greenhouse gases that a cow belches and farts out vastly outweighs what a mass of larvae would emit. So there's already a huge reduction in greenhouse gas emission for the comparable amount of protein you'd get from larvae compared to a cow", said Dr. Watson. According to him, around three quarters of all the grains produced in the world end up being fed to livestock. As nations become wealthier, their demand for meat increases and Dr. Watson, himself a soil scientist, sees this as a growing threat. “It’s a land intensive way of generating that sort of protein. Then you've got conversion of forests to cropland, and where you have cropland generally you have poorer soil protection. So you've got this growing population and this wonderfully fertile, thin layer around the world that feeds us is dwindling".
What can I do?
As alluded to in the last section, lowering your meat consumption might be a good idea, and almost all the researchers I interviewed seemed to agree. But what about a different kind of animal protein? As per Prof. Darr, "animal protein production requires a lot of energy input, and it causes a lot of environmental impact. So finding alternative sources of animal protein, I think is one of the core challenges for the future food system at a global scale. And insects can be a suitable source of this protein." As someone with crippling entomophobia, the thought made me quite uncomfortable. "Europe is the only continent in the world in which eating insects is not a norm" said Dr. Watson, as he described his own experiences experimenting with this cuisine. "It isn't an experience I would willingly repeat too often, nor is it one which I regret". A few insect species have already been approved for use as food in the European Union, and there will be more to come. "Once you get over this initial repulsion it tastes just like a flavoured pretzel or whatever," said Dr. Watson about dried, flavoured mealworm larvae that you can find in some German supermarkets.
But what about other areas of consumption? Prof. Kleinke stressed the importance of making informed decisions. "In former times, if you wanted to buy a beer from northern or southern Germany, it was in the same bottle. Now all the bottles have a different shape. So if you want to buy a beer, it's not just that the bottle goes one way, it also has to go back [to its source]. So we have two transport ways, which makes no sense". Prof. Kleinke highlighted how the production, consumption, and disposal of products is never an isolated system. "You have to include the transport, the cleaning effort, whatever has to be added, and if you need more oil for cleaning and transport than to make plastic packaging for yogurt or whatever, I don't know, best to buy yogurt from a farmer nearby".
A very important takeaway I got was that being sustainable starts with a shift in mindset. "All of us have to do what we are willing to do and what we are able to do”, said Prof. Kisters. “What is most important is that people understand 'how does my behaviour influence our world'. And as soon as you do that, you become sustainable without any problem".
The Sustainable Food Systems Research Centre
Founded about two years ago, the SFSRC is a network of researchers from all four faculties of HSRW who carry out research related to food systems. "A food system is the entirety of stakeholders and resources that are involved in food production, processing and consumption," said Prof. Darr. "We've started off to define three sub-themes [of research]. One of them concerns the utilisation of non-timber forest products (NTFPs). The second topic deals with agroforestry systems and the third topic, the contribution of insects for human or animal nutrition".
The SFSRC not only carries out valuable research across these three sub-themes, but also offers students the opportunity to get involved. “If you're really interested in this topic, you can think about doing your thesis in this area. In the Food Systems group there are a lot of professors. You contact the professor who you'd like to work with directly [via the SFSRC website]", said Dr. Katie Meinhold, herself a researcher on NTFPs.
This highlights another way that students can use their circumstances to play their part in making the goal of sustainability closer to a reality - as researchers themselves. For anyone that's interested, all the information about the research centre can be found on the SFSRC's website here.
“How to be Sustainable” is available on all major podcast platforms. As a companion piece to the main podcast, I also produced a bonus episode featuring my full-length interview with Prof. Kisters as we take a closer look at the new, and related, TransRegINT project. All this and more can be found on the How to Hochschule website here.