THE CIRCULAR economy has the potential to reinvent our food system to be regenerative and resilient.
On July 9th, the European Parliament passed an important resolution on the circular economy that called for a 30% increase in resource productivity by 2030. The week before that, Prince Charles reinforced calls for a global transition to a circular economy. Businesses aren’t far behind: many industry leaders are committing to the adoption of circular economy business models; this is an idea that is gaining traction, and at speed.
While most associate the circular economy with technical materials (refurbishing products, remanufacturing components), we’ve started to delve deeper into the important question of how circular economy principles apply to food, agriculture, and natural systems. A recent report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, SUN, and the McKinsey Centre for Business and Environment, outlines the potential of a circular economy for the economic and industrial renewal of Europe, and offers a preliminary analysis on food systems in a circular economy.
The structural waste challenges that exist in the food sector have been well-documented (in this study and in others), and it is clear that a systems-based approach is required in order to address them.
Systems-thinking is core to our vision for a food sector based on circular principles, one that would be regenerative, resilient, and non-wasteful. Our vision for the sector features reconnected nutrient loops that would encourage the rehabilitation of degraded land, farms that would be located close to consumers through urban and peri-urban farming, organic agriculture that would minimise the need for fertiliser and pesticides, and digital solutions would match supply with demand, creating less waste.
The impacts – both economic and environmental – of transitioning to such a food system are staggering: by 2050, food cost per person could be more than 30% lower than today, synthetic fertiliser consumption could fall by as much as 80%, overall CO2 emissions could fall by 60%, and water consumption could be cut by as much as 70%.
The findings here are just the beginning of a much bigger story that needs to be explored. For this vision to be realised, it will require the support and commitment of stakeholders across the agricultural and food value chains.
Ashima Sukhdev is a project manager at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.