A circular economy for food: 5 case studies

How the circular economy is being applied by pioneering companies in the food sector

Nick Jeffries


Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Has food shopping become more complicated? Whether it’s meat or vegetables, traditional or organic, local or global, industrial or smallholder, even experts disagree on what is ‘better’. The answers are not one rather than the other, but more nuanced and context dependent. It’s hardly surprising then that the global food system has been described as the “the mother of all complex systems”. Whilst agreeing on some of the basic facts is challenging, there is at least fairly universal consensus on one thing — the system is not working at the moment, and needs to change. How can we provide enough healthy and delicious food to the world’s growing population without adversely impacting the environment and society?

Image: Agriprotein

The industrial production model that we use to produce and distribute much of our food does not use resources effectively and has a number of serious associated problems. For instance, between a third and a half of food is wasted, and the way we produce much of that food causes widespread natural degradation. This situation will be greatly exacerbated by population growth and shifting demographics in the next 30 years.

Concisely put, our current food system operates on a wasteful linear model with many lost opportunities and consequential negative social and environmental impacts, all of which are set to increase.

Huge and complex

The food industry has been called by some the ‘world’s largest industry’, with over 1 billion people working each day to grow, process, transport, market, cook, pack, sell or deliver food. The resources required to sustain this are vast: 50% of the planet’s habitable land and 70% of freshwater demand is taken up by agriculture.

The global food system is highly complex and interlinked. These interlinkages reach far beyond the food system itself, directly impacting many other important physical and social systems including climate, energy and water, as well as land use, biodiversity and culture. This interconnectivity means that potential multiplying effects are wide-ranging and inevitably compounding. For example, global food waste leads to higher carbon emissions than all but the largest two countries. There’s also the impact on our health systems: uncontrolled use of antibiotics to fatten up livestock reduces the efficacy of medicines needed to combat human infectious diseases.

The way that food is produced can be categorised in two ways: the industrial chain and the smallholder farmer system. The distinction allows us to define concisely the problem that exists: the industrial system produces 30% of food, but uses 70% of the resources while at the same time greatly degrading the environment. The smallholder/peasant system, produces 70% of the food and only uses 30% of resources, with a much lower environmental impact.

The Industrialisation of Food

In the last 100 years, the advent of a number of key technologies have disrupted the agricultural sector. Three in particular have led to a sharp rise in crop productivity: the synthesis of chemical fertilisers through the Haber-Bosch process, the mechanisation of agricultural equipment and the hybridisation of seed varieties. The positive impacts have been significant, enough to earn Norman Borlaug, the architect of this ‘Green Revolution’, the Nobel Peace prize for lifting countless farmers out of subsistence lifestyles and saving hundreds of millions of people from starvation.

Photo by Matt Benson on Unsplash

The modern industrialised food system which these technologies created has now transformed food supply from predominantly local farms serving local markets, into a complex network of farmers, agribusinesses and stakeholders (‘the food value chain’) operating in a fully global marketplace, one that strives to make all food, available in all places, at all times.

However the drive for high yields and lower costs, in a similar way to many other economic sectors, has led to numerous unwanted issues. These ‘externalities’ are rarely included in traditional economic metrics, so that even though we appear to pay less for food, this does not reflect the actual wider costs to the environment and society. The key unfactored cost being that producing food in this way, means that the natural systems that we rely on so much become more degraded and unproductive.

The challenges that we face

Reaching consensus on all of the shortcomings of the modern industrial food system can be difficult, as what is construed to some as a problem, appears to others as a blessing. Industrial poultry rearing for example allows poor families to feed themselves with affordable protein, but presents clear issues around animal welfare. The wide choice of tropical fruit in European supermarkets during winter is a boon for customers, but on the flipside has a large carbon footprint and may increase water stress in the country of origin.

Despite some of these subjectivities, there is fairly universal agreement on the three main systemic problems:

  1. The industrial food system contributes to environmental degradation: each year 7.5 million hectares of forests are cut down and 75 billion tonnes of topsoil are lost.
  2. The system is wasteful: on average 30% of all food produced does not make it to the plate, in China 500 million people could be fed by the food that is grown but discarded.
  3. The system is not resilient and does not produce healthy outcomes: the starkest indicator for this is that almost 1 billion people are hungry or undernourished; while at the same time 2.1 billion people are obese or overweight.

These are all characteristics of a linear economic model that has reached its limit and which urgently needs a new direction, particularly as the pressure on the system is set to increase as populations grow, dietary patterns shift and the unpredictable impacts of climate change affect how we can use our land.

The principles and mechanisms for this new direction could be found in the system that provides all of our food supplies in the first place — nature.

Natural processes and the circular economy

The foundation of the global food system are the natural processes of photosynthesis and biodegradation. These allow abundant biomass to be created from renewable resources which are cycled through the planet’s ecosystems, eventually degrading into simple building blocks, that regenerate the biosphere allowing new generations of plants and animals to prosper.

The circular economy consciously emulates these processes, so that waste does not exist but instead used as valuable feedstock for the next stage in the cycle. In the bio-cycle of the circular economy, organic matter, free of toxic contaminants, gradually breaks down, cascading through different value-extracting stages, before returning safely to the soil. In doing so, the cycle regenerates, and thus, to borrow the words of biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus: life creates conditions conducive for new life”.

In 2011, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation outlined the principles that could underpin a more circular and effective food system in Towards a Circular Economy vol. 2. The theory was then applied in a variety of different economic contexts, Europe (2015), India (2016) and most recently in Chinese cities. In each region the potential benefits in following more circular methods have been demonstrated as significant. In Europe, for example, applying a more circular development scenario in 2050 could mean that fertiliser, pesticide and water use could be reduced by 45–50%; while at the same time GHG emissions and the use of land, fuel and electricity, could all be lowered by 10–20%.

A circular economy for food

It is clear that climate, geography, infrastructure, resource availability, food production methods, eating habits and many other influencing factors vary widely around the world and thus the challenges associated with food production are very context specific.

However, previous research across many regions has found that there are a consistent set of levers that could help advance towards a circular nutrition system that is regenerative, resilient, less wasteful and healthier

Four levers towards a circular economy of food:

  1. Close loops of nutrients and other materials — returning nutrients to farms, regenerating soils, directing nutrient flow from wastewater, strengthening soils and reducing reliance on artificial fertilisers
  2. Cascading value from by-products — recovering valuable chemicals, medicines and energy, thus providing — alternative renewable feedstocks, stimulating the bio-economy and eliminating externalities.
  3. Diversity of production — establishing shorter supply chains between farmers and retailers/consumers, reduce the waste associated with transport, creates local jobs and strengthens resilience as well as urban-rural links.
  4. The power of digital and other enablers — digital allows you to measure, track and locate food and other organic materials with more precision allowing better management and allocation of resources; policy and education are also powerful enablers for steering and empowering.

A number of companies and projects have started applying one or even a number of these levers, developing innovative products and services that make effective use of resources, by embracing circular characteristics such as system thinking, regeneration of natural capital and the idea that waste = food. By doing so these companies have reduced disposal costs and created revenue from material streams that previously might have led to pollution, increased atmospheric carbon or other problems.

Circular cases in the food sector

Closing nutrient loops

The cultivation of crops in rural farms transported to a hungry urban population means the removal of vital nutrients from soil. For the following year’s crop, the lost nutrients are replaced by expensive and often environmentally harmful chemical fertilisers derived from finite resources. This is almost a textbook description of a linear economic process. One of the most important of these nutrients is phosphorus, an important requirement for the overall health of the plant and a key chemical component for photosynthesis.

Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technology, a Vancouver based company has developed a new ‘Pearl Technology’, that can recover 85% of the phosphorus and up to 15% of the nitrogen from wastewater, transforming recovered materials into a high value fertiliser product called ‘Crystal Green®’. The product has been designed to release nutrients only when certain acids are given off by growing plant roots, this ensures that fertiliser use is optimised and avoids harmful run-off into nearby waterways. Replacing one tonne of conventional fertiliser with one tonne of Crystal Green also eliminates 10 tonnes of CO2 e emissions. Besides carbon reduction and additional revenue from fertiliser sales, a significant additional benefit for wastewater companies is the avoidance of struvite deposition on pipes and pumps, a common operational issue that is costly to manage.

Saving our seas, one factory at a time

Much of the food that the industrial system produces is used to feed animals for meat production. This process is very inefficient — growing feed for livestock uses over one third of our arable land, but produces only 1.2% of our protein. Agriprotein, a South African company, has developed a process that addresses the demand for resource efficient animal feed through valorising organic matter in agricultural by-products and food waste.

Image: Agriprotein

Agriprotein’s process harnesses the voracious appetite and nutrient recycling ability of the Black Soldier Fly. During its larval stage, the insect can increase its weight by 200 times in just 10 days by feeding on discarded organic waste material.

The larvae are then dried and converted into a highly nutritious feed for use in aquaculture or poultry and pig farming. The residual material, now transformed into a nutrient rich compost can then be used to enrich farmland. Such an approach could have greatest impact on dwindling ocean fishstocks, currently the main source of feed for the aquaculture industry. At full capacity an Agriprotein factory that processes 250 tonnes of organic material per day, could produce an insect meal that could avoid the netting and transporting of 15 million wild fish.

High yields, high above the city

Diversity is as an important part of a healthy and resilient natural ecosystem and thus desirable in a circular food system. A number of companies have adopted alternative small scale approaches to urban food production and bio-processing taking advantage of different niches and sub-systems within city spaces.

Image: Lufa Farms

Lufa Farms are a Montreal food company who are pioneers in the area of urban farming. In 2011, Lufa planted the first seeds in the world’s first commercial rooftop hydroponic greenhouse. One year later, the vegetables harvested from this 0.75 acre area was sufficient to feed 2000 local inhabitants. Producing food on previously underutilised urban roof spaces not only contributes an effective solution to the critical challenge of feeding the world’s growing cities, but also benefits the built environment more broadly by reducing building energy demands and attenuating flows into stormwater drains.

Modern urban waste processing

At the other end of the value chain, Hungarian based startup and CE100 emerging innovator, Biopolus are taking a new approach to the provision of urban infrastructure, that moves away from locating large centralised facilities in isolated peri-urban locations. Biopolus views urban spaces as a series of discrete ‘cells’ each with their own characteristics and an approximate population of 10 to 20,000. By designing decentralised “urban metabolic hubs” to suit the specific requirements of each particular cell, this can avoid over-engineering and the resulting wastefulness commonly found in traditional systems.

The central facility in each Biopolus hub is a ‘biomakery’ that transforms wastewater and organic waste into clean water, energy, food, biochemicals and other useful materials. Overall the installations are envisaged as technology platforms that developers from other sectors (e.g. water re-use, energy recovery, food production, recreation) can plug into, thus creating “networks of vibrant and aesthetically pleasing community spaces”.

Data back stories that drive change

The digital age has led to connectivity between more than a billion people and a 100 billion devices. This new connectivity has created “a new nerve and brain system for mankind” opening up a myriad of synergies and opportunities. A number of companies are starting to realise this potential in a variety of different ways.

Winnow, is a software as a service company founded by former management consultant Marc Zornes in 2014, based on the insight that a potential $252 billion of resource saving was possible by 2030 through the reduction of food waste. Winnow provides very basic hardware allowing the simple collection of data (weight and food type) in large commercial kitchens. A subscription model provides daily, weekly and bespoke reporting on food waste patterns and trends. Winnow’s hardware and reporting is currently provided to 1000 kitchens in 30 countries saving customers £9 million/year as well as significant associated carbon reduction emissions.

The unintended bonus? About 50% of workers involved in food production in one of Winnow’s largest customers have absorbed the lessons learnt at work and now take more active measures in reducing food waste when they return home.

These are just a few examples of innovative and ambitious companies that have developed new technologies, processes and business models to help shift towards a circular economy of food. By adopting new approaches, these companies are not only reducing the environmental impact of our food system but also reaping significant financial rewards, capitalising on the huge potential of the ‘biomass value chain’ which WEF estimates as $295 billion per year by 2020.

As well as economic rewards, circular food pioneers are also reducing waste and closing nutrient loops, lessening the carbon intensity related to food production and regenerating soils. The result — naturally fertilised farmland producing nutrient rich crops, leading to healthier outcomes for humans and the planet.

In 2018, the Foundation plans to expand more on the findings of 2017 Urban Biocycles Report by carrying out detailed research on the potential of circular food systems in an urban context. The research is planned as the first stage in a major new systemic initiative titled Cities and the Circular Economy for Food. If you would like to contribute to this or if you have come across any good examples of circular food initiatives then please get in touch.

Bon appetit and stay healthy!

This is the third in a series of articles accompanying the publication of thematic groups of new case studies collected from a particular region or sector. This third cluster of cases demonstrates how the circular economy is being applied by pioneering companies in the food sector.