People would not have predicted a few years ago that stores would ration basic commodities. Or that they would have to would wait at mile-long lines in food banks. Our food production and distribution methods are currently unsustainable and the COVID-19 crisis has exposed all the fractures in our food systems to many.
Now is the time to reimagine how we grow, process, transport, and package our food. The United Nations launched a global food systems summit to transform the way the world produces and consumes food. The Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) introduced a Circular Economy Action Agenda for Food with ten calls-to-action aimed at stimulating changes where it is most needed now.
The global food system’s hidden costs are massive: $12 trillion each year, which is $2 trillion more than its market value. Environmentally, conventional farming practices have eroded our soil to the point that we must replace nutrients to get aceptable yields. The eroded soil can’t absorb water during floods or sequester atmospheric carbon.
Because chemical inputs have killed off so many pollinators, we are trucking around colonies of bees in order to grow food. In the lower-income countries, people slash and burn forests to make room for farms. All those emissions go into the air, and fewer trees mean less carbon is pulled back out.
The health costs of the food system are just as consequential. Many of these costs are interlinked with environmental ones: rates of respiratory diseases, for example, are higher in areas where slash-and-burn techniques are used. Low-nutrient foods are also linked to a growing global diabetes epidemic. Food loss and waste is another huge cost, in which food is lost and wasted annually as people go hungry. Meanwhile, this rotting food emits methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Circular economy employs these basic principles: (1) design out waste and pollution, (2) keep materials in use, and (3) regenerate nature. Regenerative agriculture can replace traditional practices for protecting and restoring natural ecosystems. It removes the costs associated with compensating for poor soil quality.
A circular diet is likely healthier for individuals as well as the planet. Further, by reframing “commonly wasted materials,” there can be seen opportunities for new innovative products and business models to keep these materials being used.
Principles of circular economy can help businesses use systems for designing sustainability initiatives to address multiple, overlapping impact objectives. Circularity is a fantastic framework for designing sustainability initiatives that maximize social, environmental, and economic benefits.
The Circular Economy Action Agenda for Food, lays out three objectives to transition the food system for a sustainable future. The objectives are that: (1) food is produced in ways that regenerate nature, (2) food isn’t lost or wasted, and (3) commonly wasted resources are used productively. Also highlighting ten key areas where public, private, and civil society organizations can collaborate and act.
Within the food system, there are clear business cases and arguments for transitioning to circular strategies. Companies have the potential to significantly reduce costs and find new revenue streams. Transitioning to circular principles also helps companies streamline workflows to drive greater impact toward sustainability targets related to climate change, sustainable sourcing or packaging, and sustainable agriculture.
Preventing food loss and waste
A main priority is investing in the prevention of food loss and waste. For example, if food loss and waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the U.S. and China. The good news is that the World Resources Institute has shown a 14x return on investment for companies that invest in food waste prevention.
There can also be increased the resilience of food value chains by designing new infrastructure to prevent food loss and waste. This could be anything from public-private partnerships to build roads or scale cold chains that run on renewable energy to private sector-driven logistics innovation to keep materials being used.
A farmer-centric approach
Another priority is to take a farmer-centric approach to regenerative and sustainable agriculture. Ensuring that farmers can make a decent living while improving the environment. Companies can invest in long-term relationships with farmers rather than transactional annual contracts. Multi-year contracts enable farmers to gain access to finance that can further strengthen their farms as well as the resilience and productivity of company value chains.
Also governments can collaborate with the private sector on food systems, too, changing agricultural subsidies to support nature-positive, nutritious food production, and shift the narrative to investing in rural livelihoods. Farmers should be paid to adopt regenerative practices and capture carbon. The framing should be about income for farmers rather than simply placing demands on them.
The PACE community is full of great examples. The European context is the most mature, but innovative circular models are popping up all over the world. Indigenous practices are also hugely inspiring. Circularity isn’t just a technology solution; but an immense value to gain from traditional and indigenous practices.
Once grounded in the concept and potential applications, there needs to be two aspects for getting started: shift your mindset and the way you design. Do not think about waste and rather think about materials that are commonly wasted. This way, you begin to recognize that everything has value.
People come into the circular economy thinking about recycling, but you need to move the process much further through the value chain. Incentivize designers, for company products and processes, with new design criteria that sets on the path toward more circular business practices.
Articulating the circular economy
When an organization makes these shifts, the process start to move, being able to articulate how the circular economy will achieve business value and various sustainability initiatives, whether it’s through efficiency, new business models, products, or revenue.
Systems transformation can be complicated and overwhelming, so start small. Most companies already have sustainability commitments and know where they want to go, the circular economy is the correct pathway to get there.