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FFA2017 blog 3 – Time for solutions: Is the circular economy an answer?
19th Mar 2017

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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