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Rethinking the Food System through Circular Economy
The global food system can be defined as an interconnected network encompassing the whole range of actors, infrastructures and activities involved in the production, processing, distribution, consumption and disposal of food and diet products throughout the world, that originate from agriculture, livestock, fisheries, and parts of the wider economic, societal, and natural environments in which they are embedded. Food security for the consumers within this global food system is considered by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) as having the following four levels: availability of food, economic and physical access to food, food utilization to reach a state of nutritional well-being, and the balance and solidity of the previous three levels over time.
However, our current food system is filled with inequalities and issues that prevent adequate food security for all. We can’t talk about a functioning global food system when one in seven people today still do not have access to sufficient food, and an equal number are overfed. And it seems that things on a societal basis aren’t getting better any time soon. The world population is forecast to exceed 10 billion in 30 years, leading to an increasing demand for food and placing further pressure on these finite resources. On the supply side there will be a rising competition for land, fuel, energy and water, with the latter being of particular worry, as a number of very major aquifers, like the Ogallala Aquifer in the United States or the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin in India, are projected to be terminated in the following decades . This means that more food will need to be produced with less resources.
Apart from the overpopulation and other societal issues there’s also major environmental concerns that come hand in hand. These include nutrient pollution from fertilizer run-off, increased risks of animal and human disease spread, biodiversity loss due to monoculture and the removal of trees and hedgerows, soil degradation, and greenhouse gas emissions. Taking into account the latter, about 34% of total greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to the global food system, and in 2020 an EU evidence review found that this is on course to increase by 30–40%. The current exploitation of the environment and a business-as-usual food system risks potentially irreversible impacts on the planet, making it an increasingly inhospitable place for humans and wildlife. As such, by appraising the current planetary system, this is an urgent issue that requires critical attention and concrete policy measures in order to solve it.
The world’s food system needs to be transformed towards a nature-positive framework. The rebuilding of economies after the COVID-19 crisis offers a unique opportunity to transform the global food system and make it resilient to future shocks, while ensuring environmentally sustainable and healthy nutrition for all.
According to FAO, the inefficiencies of the food economy cost, globally, close to a trillion euros a year, or even two trillion euros when social and environmental costs are included. A transition towards a circular economy offers tools to enhance and optimize the sustainability of this system. Circular economy uses theory and principles from industrial ecology. The aims of industrial ecology are to close the loop of materials and products and reduce both resource consumption and discharges into the environment, thus benefiting the climate and contributing to the reverse of global warming consequences. Circular economy regarding the food system implies reducing the amount of waste generated in it, reusing food, using by-products and food waste, recycling nutrients, and making changes in diet towards more diverse and more efficient food patterns. Minimization of food surplus and waste reduces the overall matter consumption in the economy, thus decreasing the flow of matter related to the linear economic model.
This should be implemented both at the producer and consumer levels, through practices tailored to local contexts at first, but then on a macro scale. Practices such as using diverse crop varieties and cover crops, rotational grazing, and agroforestry, can result in agricultural land that more closely resembles natural ecosystems, providing a safe habitat for a wide range of organisms, and – equally as crucial – delivering food security and nutrition for all in such a way that the economic, social and environmental bases to generate food security and nutrition for future generations are not compromised. Meaning that it’s profitable, has broad-based benefits for society, and it has a positive impact on the natural environment.
In the transition towards sustainability, a circular economy offers opportunities, not only for local, but also national policy development. Nevertheless, transforming our food systems is a task that transcends many policy fields. We need to make sure that we tackle the challenges in an integrated way so that we can secure co-benefits for food security, environmental and climate integrity, health, and economic development. We have to exploit all possible solutions and we have to act now!
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United. (2018). Sustainable Food Systems: Concept and Framework. Available on: https://www.fao.org/3/ca2079en/CA2079EN.pdf
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Science Advice for Policy by European Academies (2020). A sustainable food system for the European Union. Berlin: SAPEA. p. 39. Available on: doi:10.26356/sustainablefood. ISBN 978-3-9820301-7-3.
Crippa, M.; Solazzo, E.; Guizzardi, D.; Monforti-Ferrario, F.; Tubiello, F. N.; Leip, A. (March 2021). “Food systems are responsible for a third of global anthropogenic GHG emissions”. Nature Food. 2 (3): 1
The Ellen Macarthur Foundation. (2021). A circular economy for food will help people and nature thrive. Available on: https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/topics/food/overview