Circular Economy: The Face of Rural Territories
Circular Economy is a consolidated theme in the EU agenda as well as in the agenda of other regional and national institutions. Nonetheless, it has been less explored and implemented in the mainly rural regions, even though the challenges these regions face are crucial, especially those related with the agri-food sector.
In rural communities, the main challenges are very deeply linked with the challenges faced by the current agricultural system. Some of the main issues are related with the greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, unsustainable exploitation of non-renewable resources (like phosphorus), land erosion, pollution of the aquatic environment and social aspects – such as poor working conditions. But, as in many other contexts, most of these issues are due to the linear logic that lie behind the agricultural production, which for the last decade has focused more on increasing production rather than investing in sustainability. So, the transformation of the agricultural system towards a circular model brings not only the possibility of a sustainable future but also new business opportunities.
Small and medium enterprises play a crucial role in rural communities. They ensure jobs and incomes for locals, protect the environment and the local heritage, and preserve the historical production and farming traditions. Therefore, their interest and capacity to become more circular is very relevant.
The research carried out by Uvarova, Atstaja and Vitola (2019) in 7 different EU regions – mostly rural – shows truly interesting results: there are some concepts related to sustainability and circular economy that were quite known by different stakeholders – such as “organic farming”, “precision farming” and “biotechnologies”. On the contrary, other concepts were much less known – “functional use” is an example.
Rural SMEs have widely implemented recycling practices – they have increased the use of renewable resources and decreased the chemicals needed in the production process. They seemed also ready to introduce traceability systems and other processes to improve their visibility, efficiency, and productivity. Nonetheless, the overall approach of the stakeholders was more supportive of traditional business and farming where innovations and new technologies could be avoided. But younger rural entrepreneurs seemed more open to introduce and embrace the innovations of the progress.
One crucial factor highlighted in this study was the fact that some of these practices – traceability, recycling – weren’t connected to the concept of circular economy in the mind of the rural stakeholders, as the general assumption was that for a circular economy business to work, large investments were required, and these SMEs did not attract them (Uvarova, Atstaja, & Vitola, 2019) .
So, it emerges that there are some gaps to be covered when it comes to spreading the knowledge and opportunities that circular economy can bring to rural communities. It is important to understand how stakeholders conceive circular economy, and envision the future of rural territories, because they will be the ones taking the most relevant actions. Even so, we can already find interesting initiatives and successful stories related to circular economy. For instance, the LIVERUR project tries to identify innovative business models in rural living labs that foster circularity.
This project works with 20 European partners in regions where rural economy is central and establishes collaborations with different stakeholders. This project is still ongoing, but it has already created an interesting conceptualization of the Rural Living Lab concept, developed a benchmark classification of existing business models and created a new business model concept (Regional Circular Living Lab). Now they are working on the last two phases that focus on boosting further collaboration with stakeholders and on implementing the testing of their approach.
To mention another one, a project supported by Wageningen University (Netherlands) has created a circular economy in the pig farming sector. The main idea is to use food waste to feed the animals so that agricultural production can be destined to human consumption. The company Nijsen/Granico picks up food waste from pastry and sweets producers and turns them into animal feed. This feed is given to the Kipster farm, which claims to be the most sustainable farm in the planet for their use of solar energy, local sales and monitoring of the GHG emissions and animal wellbeing.
As a final note, we can picture many more innovative business models developing in the rural regions of Europe in the next decade. But it is crucial to reach those small-scale- producers and inspire them to take actions towards more circular practices. The way we imagine the future of rural territories is decisive to create a more sustainable system!
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