Most of us recall this said, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.” Humanity has a profound relationship with food. Food is part of our identity and essential to our survival at the most basic level. Food brings joy and takes a fundamental place in cultures worldwide, often as the centerpiece of celebrations and festivities.
In fact, when people asked me what I miss the most from my country, naturally, family and friends come first, but the second priority that comes to my mind is “food.”
Over the last 200 years, the food industry has expanded massively. Yet, in addition to that expansion, other issues and problems have risen and aggravated.
This article will discuss how shifting to a circular economy for the food system presents substantial economic, health, and environmental benefits that would improve the food value chain and positively impact society and the ecosystem overall.
Before we explore the circular economy vision for the food system, let’s discuss the downsides of a linear economy that, until this moment, prevails.
The Linear Food System Drawbacks Overview
There are various drawbacks associated with our current food consumption, including the twin scourges of malnutrition and obesity in the front row. The other lesser-known negative impacts on the economy and society are linked to food production and disposal methods.
According to the Cities And The Circular Economy For Food report, for every dollar spent on food production, society pays two dollars as health, environmental, and economic costs. This totals to a massive amount of USD 5.7 trillion spent each year on the production of food.
Source: Ellen Macarthur Foundation – Cities and Circular Economy for Food
Moreover, modern methods of agriculture have stirred problems on the whole. Agricultural fertilizer run-offs can lead to the development of ‘dead zones’ in waterways where ﬁsh cannot survive. Modern farming methods involve tapping into finite resources such as phosphorous, potassium, and oil, which harms the natural systems.
It was found that such food production methods damage 12 million hectares of arable land every year, along with owning around a quarter of annual greenhouse gas emissions and almost three-quarters of deforestation between 2000 and 2010.
In reports released in 1972 and 1992, The Limits to Growth and Beyond the Limits, the Club of Rome had warned of this deteriorating situation. Donella Meadows, an environmental scientist, and a lead author reiterated back then that unless we shift to a more sustainable system, the future of humanity will be defined not by one emergency but by multiple crises stemming from our failure to sustain our systems.
Let us explore in detail a prime way of a sustainable food system– the switch to a circular economy.
Road to Sustainability — A Circular Economy for Food System
A circular economy is an enabler to accomplish a healthy food system that fits the 21st century and beyond. Its principles involve reforming our food-growing methods, designing food products, and the way we handle the by-products. In brief, the circular economy advocates for a natural regenerative system.
To better understand this road, we will explore three outstanding examples of companies contributing to building a circular economy for our food system. How? by sourcing food grown regeneratively, making the most of food to reduce waste and helping consumers, and challenging food companies design and marketing healthier food products.
1. Regenerative Agriculture
Regenerative agriculture aims to produce high-quality food and improve the natural ecosystem. Diversity in farming techniques and the processing of food is mandatory. Regenerative agriculture goals include shifting from synthetic to organic fertilizers, using crop rotation, and promoting biodiversity by increased crop variation. Other techniques such as agroecology, rotational grazing, agroforestry, conservational agriculture, and permaculture belong to a regenerative model.
Let us look at the following true-life story that originated in Japan that integrated a regenerative model into their food production.
Takao Furuno — Higher Yields, Lower Costs
At a small-scale, organic farming system in Japan, Takao Furuno uses none of the fossil fuel fertilizers and pesticides traditionally required to grow high-yield monoculture crops. Based on complex dynamic living systems, Mr. Furuno’s farm produces an impressive range of additional food products, including duck eggs, fish, duck meat, vegetables, wheat, and figs.
His farming system’s insight reveals the complex multi-species system, which is entirely independent of any outside farm inputs. It first requires rice seedlings set into flooded rice paddies and a raft of ducklings introduced to feed on the insects that generally feed on young rice plants. Next, loaches (cultivate fish and later sold for eating) are introduced along with Azolla, a water fern. The Azolla fixes nitrogen from the air to encourage rice’s healthier growth and provides a natural substitute for artificial fertilizers.
Dropping fish and ducks keep it under control besides providing additional nutrients for the rice to flourish. In addition to controlling weeds, the ducks’ padding feet oxygenate the water and encourage the rice plants’ roots to grow.
If you want to know more about Takao Furuno you can find the video here.
2. Designing out Food Waste Products
Today, only 2% of our food’s nutritional value is recycled, and more than 30% of the produced food is wasted. We have to find new ways to make the most of the food by ensuring that its by-products are used at the highest value instead of being dumped.
Under this vision, some initiatives include improving storage conditions to minimize spoilage, reducing the price of soon-to-expire products, and enabling inedible by-products to return to the soil as organic fertilizers. Moreover, they can also be turned into biomaterials, medicines, bioenergy, or completely reformed into new products. In short, cities can become hubs for a thriving bio-economy where food by-products are transformed into a broad array of usable products.
Too Good to Go — Inspiring People to Fight Food Waste
Of course, food is always too good to go to waste, but it does — at offices, uneaten sandwiches, vegetables, and left-overs at a party. One-third of all food produced today ends up in a bin, where it is at best fed to animals or recycled and at worst sent to landfill or incineration. Wasted food is also contributing massively to global greenhouse gas emissions. Not only does this issue pose severe ethical and social questions, but it also profoundly threatens the environment.
Too Good to Go was found in 2015 to create a system where surplus food is sold at the lowest price possible. Too Good To Go saved its first meal in Copenhagen in March 2016. The founders’ initial idea was to focus on food that became waste at the end of buffets. While developing this concept, they quickly realized that it could be extended to all kinds of foodservice providers such as restaurants and cafes, bakeries, and hotels.
After four years, its success can be measured by moving from one city to 14 countries, 55.1 million meals being saved through the mobile application, and having more than 29.7 million users worldwide.
And if you want to start reducing food waste find more details here
3. Design Healthier Food Products
A circular economy could help design better and healthier food in terms of nutritional value and the way it is produced. We can combine multiple food providers in our communities to design and market so that the production process and the food itself are healthier.
Yuka Application — the Food Scanner
Yuka, a mobile application worth 14 million users and spanning a usage of 3.5 million times a day, can scan food and hygiene products from the feasibility of your smartphones. This transparency that detects additives and overall nutritional quality have allowed consumers to pressure food brands to redesign their food processing strategies.
Since its creation, Yuka has been a collaborative application that relies on a database fed and enriched by its users. For example, when a user scans a not recognized product, he can create a card and additional information. And then, Yuka’s team processes the information, verifies the data to establish the product rating.
Yuka’s mission is to encourage manufacturers to bring healthier products to the market. Today, they have become a challenger of the food industry manufacturers by increasing pressure to produce and deliver better food.
By the way, if you want to test, Yuka is available in the US, Canada, France, UK, Italy, Belgium, Swiss, Luxembourg, Spain, UK, Irland, and Australia.
The current food system, which was designed during the years towards a linear economy, has supported a fast-growing population and has fuelled economic development and urbanization.
However, these productivity gains have come at a cost, and the model is no longer fit to meet future needs. As much as we like to consume food, it is hard to believe that we still throw the third quarter of it into the garbage. Therefore, it is high time to redesign our systems.
The ideas mentioned above are only some inspirational examples that we can look at to devise other ways to reinvent the system. The stories of Mr. Furuno, Too Good to Go, Yuka, and other companies that have strived for and succeeded in bringing a change in the system are sources of inspiration.
There will need to be an unprecedented collaboration between food brands, producers, retailers, city governments, waste managers, and other urban food actors.
With a circular economy for food, we can improve access to nutritious food, combat climate change, support local communities, and create value. The vision set out offers a way out of the deadlock facing the global food system, with cities mobilizing the transition to a circular economy for food both within and beyond their borders.
Initiating the journey might be intimidating for your efforts, but given the success-stories as above, it is evident that a circular shift can work for our sustainable future in the long run. So, now is the time to make it happen.
Next up in the series, I will share insights on different industries circular opportunities, like plastic, and fashion.
Previous articles of the circular economy series:
- What Is Circular Economy and Why Should You Adopt It?
- Innovation’s Time is Now – Circular Economy Is Paving the Way
- Why should we use Systems Thinking to identify the root causes of problems and new opportunities