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Creating value from agricultural by-products and new biomass sources: how do value chains need to be reorganized to foster the sustainability transition?
Production systems need to be sustainable to cope with the global challenges of climate change, growing population, and a scarcity of fossil resources. In particular, agricultural by-products and biomass can be valorised through their cascading use enabling to obtain new ingredients for industrial applications. Likewise, alternative sources of biomass, such as perennial plants that do not compete with food production, can generate a range of fuels, materials and building blocks for the chemical industry. To enable the implementation of these processes fostering the replacement of scarce resources by means of waste streams and/or by-products, diverse sectors and technology platforms tend to integrate themselves and entire value chains are moving towards new linkages and redesigns. As a consequence, the firms aiming to remain innovative in these converging settings require additional knowledge and capabilities from hitherto-unrelated industry sectors. For example, sustainable innovations can generate spillovers via the establishment of a unique technology basis between two or more sectors that were formerly separated, requiring increasing interdependency among so far separated players leading to emerging value chains. Nevertheless, the utilization of biological resources derived from by-products and waste streams are often associated with novel processing technologies, leading to challenges for industrial partners, such as high switching costs, the absence of downstream processing technologies, or a lack of existing industry standards. Despite these challenges, new technologies aimed at valorising agricultural by-products and alternative biomass sources are already available and constitute a promising basis for more sustainable production systems. The paper aims to review, compare and discuss the emergence of new value chains in three cases of different uses of agricultural by-products: tomato plant by-products, rapeseed oil press-cakes, biomass from perennial plants cultivated on marginal soils. Tomato plant by-products can be processed to extract valuable secondary metabolites contained therein, which exhibit high chemical diversity and several biological activities valuable for human health. Rapeseed oil press-cakes represent a valuable source of phosphorus which can be recovered before ending up the press-cakes to the feeding industry. Biomass from perennial plants is used to extract lignin and sugars, which in turn can have valuable industrial applications. Data have been generated from expert interviews with value chain actors. The cases have been compared in terms of value chain design, challenges arising from the emergence of new organizational structures and willingness to adopt new processes, and opportunities offered by the new processes, seeking to develop an overarching framework of analysis for the phenomenon of emerging value chains. Results revealed both drivers and barriers for the valorisation of agricultural by-products. As drivers, increasing consumer trends towards sustainability, the possibility for B2B customers to obtain local/regional bio-based biomass, a growing interest of farmers in plant-based agrochemicals are revealed. As barriers, interviewees mentioned missing industry standards and market approval of novel ingredients, hesitation in redesigning the current business model.