Food production and circular economy

Food is part of our cultural identity and, at the most basic level, essential to our survival. Over the past 200 years, we have seen an unprecedented development of agriculture and the global food industry, which now brings many people reliable, affordable access to an extraordinary variety of food. Looking at what we consume and how we produce it, we find extensive evidence for damage done to our food and our environment. Food production accounts for around one-quarter or 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions. But this number is mostly ignored as food is one of the basic human needs required for survival. Studies say that around one-fourth of the calories the world produces are discarded as waste. They’re spoiled or spilled in supply chains; or are wasted by retailers, restaurants, and consumers. A study by researchers Poore and Nemecek found that almost one fourth i.e., 24% of food emissions come from food that is lost in supply chains or wasted by consumers. Nearly two-thirds of this (15% of food emissions) comes from losses in the supply chain, which results from poor storage and handling techniques, lack of refrigeration, and spoilage in transport and processing. The other 9% comes from food thrown away by retailers and consumers.

The increasingly wasteful way of producing food today, relies on extracting finite resources like phosphorus, potassium, and oil, on growing food in ways that harm the natural systems upon which agriculture depends. The damage also includes the degradation of 12 million hectares of arable land a year and requires almost one-fourth of the forest land. Then, in cities, we capture and use a tiny fraction of the valuable nutrients in discarded food, food by-products, and sewage. Air pollution, antibiotic resistance, water contamination, and chemical exposure from food production will claim almost five million lives a year by 2050, which is twice as many as the current toll from obesity.

World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2019 in Davos introduced the report titled ‘Cities and Circular Economy for Food, ‘ which explores the benefits of the transition to a regenerative food system. This research outlines a vision underpinned by circular economy principles, where food production improves rather than degrades the environment and where people have access to healthy and nutritious food. The report highlights their critical importance in triggering the shift towards a regenerative system fit for the long term. As 80% of all food is expected to be consumed in cities by 2050, it is essential that cities are central to this change. They can set in motion the transition to a circular economy for food, where food waste is designed out, food by-products are re-used at their highest value, and food production regenerates rather than degrades natural systems.

The report by Ellen MacArthur Foundation further identifies three interrelated goals that businesses, governments, and cities can collectively work on to put the food system on a more regenerative path. The three ways to build a better circular economy for our food are:

  1.  Source food that is grown regeneratively and, where appropriate, locally

By interacting with producers in their peri-urban and rural surroundings, cities can use their demand power to move from passive consumers to active catalysts of a transition to a circular economy for food. Examples of regenerative agricultural practices include shifting from synthetic to organic fertilizers, using crop rotation, and promoting biodiversity through increased crop variation. Agroecology, rotational grazing, agroforestry, conservation agriculture, and permaculture all fall under this definition. Food players in cities can collaborate with farmers and reward them for adopting these beneficial approaches. Cities can source a significant share of their food from peri-urban areas (within 20 kilometers of cities) as they encompass 40% of the world’s cropland. Such local sourcing can also diversify cities’ food supply, reduce packaging needs, and shorten supply chains.

  1. Make most of the food

Cities play a crucial role in designing-out food waste as they are where most food eventually ends up. To this end, we have to make the most of our food by ensuring that its by-products are used at their highest value. Rather than disposing of surplus food, cities can redistribute it to help tackle food insecurity. Food supply and demand can be better matched, storage improved to minimize spoilage, and soon-to-expire products discounted. Inedible by-products can be turned into new food products, returned to the soil in the form of organic fertilizer, or turned into biomaterials, medicines, or bioenergy. In short, cities can become hubs for a thriving bio-economy where food by-products are transformed into a broad array of valuable products.

  1. Design and market healthier food products

In a circular economy, food is not only healthy in terms of nutritional value, but also in the way it is produced. For decades, food brands, retailers, restaurants, schools, and other providers have shaped a significant part of our daily diets. By leveraging their combined power, we can change food design and marketing to make both the processes of food production healthier as well as the food itself. For instance, plant-based proteins require far fewer natural resources, such as soil and water, than their animal counterparts, making them a very desirable alternative. Better food design, using food by-products as ingredients and avoiding certain additives, for instance, can further ensure valuable nutrients circulate safely back to the soil or the wider bio-economy.

These three ambitious goals will save $2.7 trillion by 2050. Health costs resulting from pesticide use would decrease by $550 billion, and antimicrobial resistance, air pollution, water contamination, and food-borne diseases would also reduce significantly. Greenhouse gas emissions are expected to decrease by 4.3 Gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2 equivalents, which corresponds to taking one billion cars permanently off the road. Furthermore, 15 million hectares of arable land can be spared from degradation, and 450 trillion liters of fresh water can be saved. Cities can unlock $700 billion by reducing edible food waste and using organic by-products as biomaterials, fertilizers, or energy sources.

There is an urgent need to realize this vision on a large scale. To do so, we will require a global system-level change effort that spans value chains. There needs to be unprecedented collaboration between food brands, producers, retailers, city governments, waste managers, and other urban food actors.


  • World Economic Forum-
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