Chilean Academics Take on the Food Crisis
For ages, the pieces and discarded materials left over from cutting rice were marketed as low-cost food for cattle. However, a plan for making better use of these waste materials and transforming them into a food product for consumers was enthusiastically approved by the technology faculty of the University of Santiago in Chile (USACH). In 2006, professors there undertook a project that has long-term implications.
The USACH project immediately attracted the attention of FIA, Chile’s Foundation for Agrarian Innovation. Funded by the Ministry of Agriculture, FIA’s mission is to promote innovation. FIA contributed the $161,000 needed for financing the project.
USACH then began its research using extrusion technology. Laura Almendares of the USACH faculty, who headed the project, said that the process “enabled us to take advantage of the waste materials of rice production. After two years, we created a reconfigured rice that is very similar in appearance, flavor and aroma to traditional rice. This represents an innovative alternative for the market.” Almendares adds that one of the factors that differentiates the new rice from traditional rice is its low production cost, 40% below that of traditional rice.
Recent market research and focus groups conducted by USACH have had excellent results. Local consumers who tasted the product said they would buy it because of both its taste and price. Now USACH is planning a series of meetings with companies in the food industry. Their goal will be to commercialize reconfigured rice in the local market.
The interest generated by this innovation has surprised its creators, notes Almendares. “Two years ago, there wasn’t any world food crisis, so we never imagined that this rice could wind up being such an important product because of its [low] price and the ease of producing it.”
Technology and Innovation in Times of Crisis
According to Fernando Figuerola, professor of food science and technology at the Austral University of Chile, “The latest reports of the FAO (the UN Food and Agriculture Organization) indicate that the volume of food production in the world should be sufficient for the current number of consumers.” That means that “the problem in the current food crisis is not scarcity [of food] but the irrational and largely inefficient way that food resources are used.
“If consumption continues to rise in big markets such as India and China, and if production of biofuels based on corn, rice and other cereals also goes up, we could experience a sizable imbalance in terms of food scarcity and distribution on a global scale.” Given this scenario, “Technology and innovation contribute incalculable value to the development of new food products.”
Especially appealing, notes Figuerola, is that the USACH rice product uses technology to take exploit resources that were previously discarded.
Hugo Núñez, professor of agricultural sciences at the University of Chile, agrees. “When the food industry puts forward innovative technologies and processes,,” he states, “it contributes significantly to expanding the supply of food. This avoids the loss of waste products and enables us to take maximum advantage of by-products.” Low-value waste products can be transformed into an attractive and acceptable product for consumers, as in the case of reconfigured rice.
According to Patricio Carvajal, professor at the food school of the Catholic University in Valparaíso, “The great achievement of this new rice lies in its low cost of production. In most other cases, using advanced technology tends to significantly increase the price of the final product.” Adds Jacqueline Revecco, professor in the food school of the Catholic University of Valparaíso, “This substitute [for conventional rice] arrives at a time when rice is selling at an unprecedented price. Its potential [appeal] is obvious.”
Nevertheless, extrusion is not a new technology. “In fact, it has been applied for quite a while in the United States, where there already exist several brands of extruded, ready-to-serve rice,” notes Carvajal.
As Revecco explains it, “Extrusive processes are extensively used in the food market in general, since they permit various products to be retextured. All of the pellets (portions of food compressed for animals) and textured vegetable proteins (TVPs), made from soybean oil are products whose manufacturing processes involve the extrusion process.” For her part, Almendares notes that the Chilean food sector uses extrusion technology in the production of breakfast cereals and for food production in the salmon industry.
Ismael Kasahara, a professor at the Catholic University’s food school, adds, “The problem with extrusion technology is that it forces producers to make a high initial investment in equipment. This has become a barrier to its widespread use both in Chile and the rest of Latin America.”
On the other hand, notes Almendares, one of the main benefits of this new technology is the simplicity in the way it functions. “The extrusion process is very simple. To obtain reconfigured rice, you only have to add the discarded part of the rice along with wheat; add water at a certain temperature; along with other additives, using specially equipped machinery or an extrusion machine. The machinery compresses and grinds the mixture, applying a specific amount of pressure to form a mass. Then, this mass leaves [the machinery] in the form of a noodle, which is finally cut into seeds,” Almendares notes.
Obstacles in Development
Despite the fact that the process for making reconfigured rice is simple, scientists at USACH have had to battle several major obstacles in order to give their product an appearance, flavor and consistency that pleases local consumers. “At the beginning, we created a product whose appearance didn’t satisfy consumers because it was quite uneven and lumpy,” notes Almendares. “Then, we focused on performing more tests aimed at improving its appearance, so that the final product looks more like conventional rice.”
In a parallel effort, researchers at USACH created a panel of professors and students whose goal was to evaluate and improve other aspects of the products, such as their flavor, color and consistency. “They tested numerous flavors to add to the reconfigured rice, until we finally came to the conclusion that the flavor of meat was the flavor that satisfied consumers the most,” says Almendares.
“What we’ve done with this new rice so far is to create a product that is easily accepted, easy to produce and tasty,” states Núñez, adding, however, that “From the technical point of view, certain bioactive components could be added that would permit us to create a food that has higher-value, such as dietary fibers – which are eliminated during the preparation of white rice – as well as antioxidants and phytosteroles, for example.”
Carvajal notes that it is important to study the chemical, nutritional and physical limitations of the new rice in order to create the most accurate possible forecasts of its market potential. Yet according to Almendares, it is impossible to do that because USACH is currently in discussions with local firms to determine which of them will be granted patent rights for producing it. “Our goal is for the reconfigured rice to reach the ultimate consumer in the medium term.”
Barriers to Collaboration
According to Revecco, outlining a strategy for marketing this new rice in Chile is a major challenge. Beyond laying out the strategy, price, distribution channels, and promotional activities, “they should create different versions of the reconfigured rice for different segments of the market. If this occurs, they could attract a great number of consumers.”
Starting with the reconfigured rice, adds Núñez, scientists could develop other products that are ready for being heated in microwave ovens using special packaging. “I believe that there are broad business opportunities that could be derived from this innovative product.”
For his part, Kasahara foresees obstacles that could impede companies from successfully marketing this product initially. “Probably in the short term, the profit margins could be a disincentive for companies to get involved in projects for developing new products such as reconfigured rice.” This could change in the medium and long term if the balance between supply and demand of the new product improves, he adds.
Meanwhile, Figuerola worries most about achieving enough cooperation between the worlds of academia and business when it comes to planning how to commercialize the new rice. “The Chilean market is made up mostly of small and medium-size companies that have a very short-term vision. They are more concerned about making changes because of the falling value of the dollar, and higher prices for petroleum and natural gas, than about getting involved in innovative projects.” In his view, this short-term focus represents a major obstacle to forging alliances and collaborative networks between universities and the business community. “Generally speaking, this trait is a characteristic of Latin American companies,” he says, adding that when it comes to Chile in particular, transferring knowledge from these academic institutions to the business world is a very complex process “because there is [so much] distrust.”
The Possibilities for Exporting
Kasahara does not discard the possibility that reconfigured rice will become an export product over the long term. “You can visualize the profit and marketing opportunities, provided that various countries revise their requirements and restrictions. In many markets, it is unavoidable that there will be various ways that local industries are protected.”
Figuerola is more pessimistic, noting that it will be very hard for the new product to position itself successfully in international markets. “You have to remember that traditional rice is a commodity. And the main rice producers in the region, such as Uruguay and Brazil, have an economy based on the production of first-class rice, and they export it to very demanding markets. In short, these countries have a very strong influence on the market.” Uruguay and Brazil, he adds, are going to defend their roles in the marketplace by maintaining their current production volumes. “It is very hard for a reconfigured rice to substitute for a first-class food product, such as what they produce.”