FFA2017 blog 3 – Time for solutions: Is the circular economy an answer?

This blog is part of an online debate taking place in the weeks before FFA2017 in Brussels.

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Shaping a circular food system

A personal viewpoint from Lena Gravis from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation

With the advent of new technologies and new methods of cultivation, the post-war industrial model of agriculture has achieved impressive success. High-yield crops increased global food production, helped prevent famines and epidemics, resulting in an unprecedented global population growth since the 1960s.

The necessary transition

This positive track record hides a very different picture, as the agriculture system is facing greater pressures. Whether or not we’ll have the capacity to meet the global growing demand for food is an open question. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that production will need to increase by 70% by 2050 to feed a growing urbanised and wealthier global population. Besides food security challenges that need addressing, we are now left with a system that no longer ensures healthy outcomes. Whilst modern agriculture relies on greater use of pesticides and non-organic fertilisers to optimise yields, the nutritional content of several vegetable categories is falling, and the presence of toxic chemicals or even plastics in food is becoming a real subject of concern. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that contamination by pesticides is responsible for approximately 250,000 deaths per year. On the environmental side, it has now been established that modern agriculture has contributed to further land degradation, extension of coastal dead zones, and disruption of vital natural processes such as CO2 absorption or the nitrogen cycle.

These issues raise serious interrogations, yet they also create compelling reasons to think differently and point towards a healthier, less wasteful system that can contribute to restoring natural capital and reducing the dependency on synthetic fertiliser and pesticides. This transition towards a circular economy path requires the combination of complementary approaches that involve traditional methods, as well as cutting edge technologies.

Regenerating the food system

Several regenerative farming practices exist that increase soil quality, deliver better biodiversity and enhance crop yields. Organic farming for example, that does not rely on chemical inputs, such as synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, provides a more reliable long-term foundation for soil fertility and biological activity that contribute to improve productivity and nutritious crops in the long-term. In 2007, the FAO determined that organic agriculture would play a positive role in food security, climate change mitigation, water security and quality, agri-biodiversity and rural development [1]. Organic agriculture is a step towards ecosystems revitalisation, but it needs to be combined with other regenerative practices. For example, adapting production of single focus monoculture of annual plants to a polyculture of perennials could further contribute to rebalancing living systems and reinforcing economic. “Combining several regenerative practices unlocks tremendous economic value for farmers. A 50% higher profitability could be achieved by shifting to organic vegetable monoculture. But a 200% higher profitability could be achieved by shifting to regenerative vegetable multi-culture” states the 2016 Achieving Growth Within report [2]. Holistic management of animal grazing gives another example of a profitable agriculture practice that does not only preserve natural capital but regenerates it, by helping re-carbonise soil and restore the natural nitrogen cycle while increasing crop yields. This approach is now successfully implemented on more than 40 million acres around the world [3].

Developing local food production

Yet, the barriers to shifting to regenerative farming practices are still numerous, as farmers need to adapt to new skills while yields and revenue can be unstable in the transition phase. On the consumer side however, demand for organic and unprocessed food is growing and goes hand in hand with the rising interest for fresh and locally produced food. This partly explains the recent development of peri-urban and urban food production in or on top of city buildings in controlled environments, using aeroponic or aquaponic techniques and LED lighting technology. The production of high-quality herbs, fruits and vegetables associated with the diminution of storage space, transportation or waste is seen as a promising solution. Additionally urban farming can be scaled up, as illustrated by the Barcelona example, as the city has announced a goal of producing half of its food in a metropolitan area [4]. Although indoor farming requires infrastructure and new technology developments as well as important investments to develop further, this novel way of producing food should bring about benefits, from freeing-up land space through to reducing reliance on fertilisers and pesticides.

Closing the loop in regenerative cities

With more than half of the global population living in urban areas, the role of cities in food production is becoming more important. Consequently, so is urban food waste and nutrient recovery. In the urban context, nutrient recovery from municipal solid waste and wastewater systems is a typical feature of circular economy solutions that offers huge potential. After collection and treatment, nutrients could be returned to the agricultural system and therefore also contribute to displacing a proportion of synthetic fertilisers, while at the same time producing energy through anaerobic digestion or biorefinery (see the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s scoping paper, “The Urban Biocycle”, March 2017). “This would provide clear benefits of up to 5% CO2 reduction and a 10% decrease in synthetic fertiliser use by 2030” states the Achieving Growth Within report.

Combining these different approaches with the best of traditional farming shapes a coherent circular food system that has the significant potential to revitalise ecosystems, reduce CO2 emissions and produce healthy and nutritious food.

These sets of opportunities could also make a substantial contribution to job creation, and if successfully applied, could generate an economic benefit of hundreds of billions of euros [5]. The time is right to initiate such a shift, which will need concerted stakeholder action, regulatory adjustments, innovation and dedicated investment strategies.

[1] Report on the International Conference on Organic Agriculture and Food Security (Nat 2007)
[2] Achieving Growth Within, Systemiq, Sun, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017
[3] Lovins ; H. The Circular economy of soil; in A New Dynamic 2: Effective systems in a ciruclar economy. Ellen MacArthur Publishing. 2016.
[4] M. Stuchtey ; M Rossé. Towards aregenerative food system. In New Dynamic 2 : Effective systems in a Circular economy. Ellen MacArthur Publishing, 2016
[5] A New Dynamic 2: Effective Systems in a Circular Economy. M. Stuchtey, M. Rossé. Towards a Regenerative Food System.

MacArthur Foundation

Lena Gravis

Lena manages international content at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. She writes for Circulate about French news and is responsible for sourcing circular economy news from around the world. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation was established in 2010 with the aim of accelerating the transition to the circular economy. Since its creation, the Foundation has emerged as a global thought leader, establishing circular economy on the agenda of decision makers across business, government and academia.

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FFA2017 blog 2 – Time for solutions: Is the CAP fit for delivering the SDGs?

This blog is part of an online debate taking place in the weeks before FFA2017 in Brussels.

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Time for solutions: Is the CAP fit for delivering the SDGs?

A personal viewpoint from Professor Emeritus Allan Buckwell, Director of the RISE Foundation report ‘CAP: thinking out of the box’

Agriculture has a crucial role to play in addressing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and ensuring that European Union lives up to its commitments to these goals. Seven of the seventeen goals can be linked to agriculture, most notably the goals for sustainable production and consumption, climate change and ecosystem services.


The Common Agricultural Policy is the EU’s most developed sectoral policy which provides crucial support for agriculture and the rural environment in Europe. The CAP has always adapted to the changing challenges faced in Europe. For the next decade or two one of the most critical challenges is climate change which threatens agriculture. We must equip farmers with the knowledge and capacity to reduce emissions, to contribute to sustainable renewable energy production, and to adapt to whatever climatic conditions they encounter whilst continuing to supply our food. The technical challenge faced by our farmers is immense. Europe rightly demands reasonably-priced, high quality food, with world-leading ambitions for environmental protection and animal welfare. In addition, we want our farmers to carefully steward natural resources, offer flood protection, maintain and even enhance biodiversity, and provide the cultural landscapes for our rural holidays. All this whilst remaining reasonably competitive in supplying food in highly volatile market conditions. This are tough demands, and farmers can reasonably expect that the generously-funded Common Agricultural Policy should help them rise to these challenges.

The RISE Foundation invited a small group of experienced CAP analysts to think about how the CAP can be further modified to better help farmers rise to these multiple challenges. The report of the RISE CAP Reform group will be presented as part of the Forum for the Future of Agriculture at a launch event on March 27 in Brussels and as part of the conference on March 28.

Early conclusions of this work are that the biggest changes to the CAP must be to restructure the way we incentivise the right kind of land management required and how to help farmers better manage the multiple risks they face. It can be no secret that the aspect of the present CAP which has most to change to do this are the Pillar 1 direct payments; these are the core of the present CAP absorbing over 70% of the CAP budget. Indeed, the group makes no assumption that the two pillar CAP will be the most useful structure for the next phase of EU agricultural development. The next two decades will be a particularly interesting period of agricultural development because simultaneously a new age of technology of precision farming based on digitisation and utilising big data is arriving. This will enable more resource efficient, less leaky production systems which mange natural capital better and provide high quality consistent products. The CAP must provide the means for these developments, encouraging a new generation of farmers into the industry and providing the cohort of aging farmers a dignified opportunity to retire. Too much of the present CAP is not well targeted to facilitate these developments.

The RISE report tries to suggest how this complex jigsaw of land and risk management supports can be combined with the best of the existing rural development supports and perhaps new ways of encouraging and supporting transition. It also considers if the current policy decision making procedures could be better structured to maximise the chance of constructive dialogue between the main stakeholders in agricultural policy to work together.

Allen Buckwell

Allan Buckwell

Two thirds of his career Allan Buckwell has been as an academic agricultural economist specialising in agricultural and rural policy. This has involved his work as a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for European Environmental Policy (since 2012), 14 years at Newcastle University and then from 1984-1999 as Professor of Agricultural Economics, Wye College University of London (which was merged into Imperial College). He specialised on teaching and research into all aspects of European rural policy dealing especially with the Common Agricultural Policy, trade issues, and technology and structural change in farming and its impacts. During 1995/6 he was seconded to the analysis and conception unit of DG Agri in the European Commission where he chaired a policy integration group who laid out a model for the evolution of the CAP. He joined the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) as Policy Director in 2000. Since then he has been involved in debates on how to balance the CAP as a policy for Food and Environmental Security.

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FFA2017 blog 1 – Time for solutions: Rebooting the system?

This blog is part of an online debate taking place in the weeks before FFA2017 in Brussels.

We welcome your comments and feedback via Twitter or Facebook.

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Time for solutions: Rebooting the system?

A personal viewpoint from FFA Chair Janez Potočnik

Today, we live in a globally connected society, where our food habits span the globe. The way we produce and consume has direct effects on the environment, public and personal health, and lives of people we will never meet. However, both abroad and at home, we still cling to the idea that national governments can solve these issues singlehandedly, and worse, that one ministry, be it for health, agriculture or environment can solve the problem alone.

We need global actions that break through these silos so that we can tackle global problems that will have as much impact on you and me as it will on a farmer in Haiti or a factory worker in China.
Unless we become fully aware of the interconnected nature of our lives in the 21st century, and get the governance structures to match, we have no hope of achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and of living within the planetary boundaries.

The SDGs, which were ratified in 2015 and represent seventeen major policy areas, range from affordable and clean energy to ending hunger to sustainable use of our oceans. The SDGs recognize that today we are all connected in a kind of a global village, and that everybody must play their part.
Under the SDG agreement, the EU and your government have committed to one hundred and sixty-nine targets to guide them; a list set out by the world’s best thinkers and scientists. If that sounds very long and complicated, it is because the challenges we face today are not simple to solve.


How can we translate these global goals into local actions?

What steps should we take first?

The start should be to re-evaluate our approach to food and how we make political decisions.

Today, we still more or less break down all the bits in the food chain; the farm is one category, the truck that takes your grain to the processor another, the factory that turns it into cookies is a third, the supermarket yet another, and you – the consumer – are seen as different again. Such a segmented approach cannot solve our problems.

We need to fully understand this if we are to make the correct changes to the institutions that set the rules. We need to see that we cannot have policies and government that look at the individual pieces, but not the whole puzzle. If we want to fix the connections between the farm and the fork, halt our current food waste and achieve the SDGs, we must begin by connecting our policy areas and restructuring our governments around the problem, not the sector.

Right now, the majority of us try to divorce our consumption from its consequences and we prefer to blame others for our problems. This does not just happen at the personal level, but government ministries do the exact same thing.

What we need is more fundamental honesty in our behaviour on individual and institutional level. We need to comprehend the complexity of the food system challenges and join the forces to address them.

Janez Potocnik

Janez Potočnik

From 2010 until November 2014, Janez Potočnik was Commissioner for Environment, European Commission. In 2004 he joined the European Commission, first as Shadow Commissioner for Enlargement and then as Commissioner responsible for Science and Research. He is currently appointed for a three-year term as a member and Co-Chair of International resource Panel hosted by United Nations Environment Programme. He is also Chair of FFA2017 and Chairman of the RISE (Rural Investment Support for Europe) Foundation.

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