A circular shift in the food system can help to avert the triple planetary crisis

Redesigning how we produce and consume food in less wasteful and more generative ways could halt biodiversity loss, reduce emissions and safeguard food security.

Tim Forslund, Patrick Schröder and Johanna Tilkanen, 14 October 2022

Hungduan Hapao rice terraces, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Ifugao, Philippines in June 2016. Photo: John S Lander/LightRocket via Getty Images.

The last two years have seen a set of disruptive events including a pandemic and an invasion of a sovereign state in Europe. Supply chains have come under strain and access to key agricultural inputs, such as fertilizers, has been cut off while commodity prices have soared. The importance of Russia and Ukraine as energy and food producers is such that the conflict has shaken global markets and jeopardized food and energy security for hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest.

At the same time, the triple planetary crisis of biodiversity loss, climate change and pollution have not gone away. Instead, they have become both more pressing and more intense as increasingly frequent and extreme weather events leave scathing marks across the globe.

Humanity is now facing a number of mutually reinforcing challenges and cascading risks at an unprecedented scale. All this at a time when geopolitical tension, economic uncertainty, rising inflation and cost of living crises cloud the collective resolve needed to turn the tide on the crises at hand.

The good news is that, not only the crises but also the solutions, are interconnected, converging around one sector of central importance: the food system. Rethinking how we produce and consume food in line with a circular economy would go a long way toward solving the triple planetary crisis while building a more resilient food system where food is both healthier and more accessible for the global population.

A circular food system halts biodiversity loss while tackling climate change

In an article published on circulareconomy.earth, we explored the role of the circular economy in halting biodiversity loss and pointed at the food system as having a central part to play.

Indeed, recent findings by the Finnish Innovation Fund, Sitra, has corroborated this by quantifying the role of the circular economy in halting global biodiversity loss for the first time. The study found that a circular shift in the food and agriculture sector could, on its own, halt the decline by both freeing up large areas of land and driving positive biodiversity outcomes in and around areas under production. This is possible through three main shifts in the food system:

Firstly, alternative proteins have the largest potential of the three main shifts in the food system modelled. Agriculture uses half of all habitable land, with 77 per cent used to directly raise, or to feed, livestock intended for consumption. By reducing the consumption of meat by 50 per cent and dairy by 67 per cent and instead shifting to less animal-intensive and wasteful sources of protein, such as meat-like products made out of fava beans or egg white protein from precision fermentation, 350 million hectares of agricultural land – an area larger than all of India – could be freed up by 2050, leaving more room for nature to thrive.

Secondly, food waste has the second largest potential in terms of halting biodiversity loss. Today, almost one third of food is wasted or lost globally. Only in Europe, an estimated 88 million tonnes of food is wasted annually across households, retailers and restaurants, with associated costs of 143 million Euros. This is an enormous design flaw that the circular economy can help tackle at every step of the supply chain, for example, by making processed products, such as tomato sauce, from aesthetically unappealing produce, by providing chefs with AI-enabled tools to help measure and tackle waste in kitchens or by enabling discounted access to surplus food from restaurants that would otherwise go to waste. By reducing food waste and loss by 50 per cent, 146 million hectares of land – an area corresponding to the combined size of Spain, France and Italy – could be freed up for rewilding and restoring habitats.

Thirdly, regenerative agriculture brings together a range of solutions, from no-till methods to crop rotation, polyculture, agroecology and other non-extractive farming principles which are less extractive and help rebuild soils. This shift does not primarily cause changes in land use but instead improves biodiversity in and around areas under production contributing to 5 per cent of the biodiversity improvements modelled in the scenario.

Taken together, these three shifts could turn the tide on biodiversity loss by the next decade, while also tackling climate change, transforming fields and pastures form a source of emissions to a carbon sink.

The modelled scenario would also meet the European Commission’s revised proposal of net removal of 310 Mt CO2 per year from land use, land use change and the forest sectors by 2030. In particular, 90 per cent of methane emissions from agriculture could be mitigated. Climate change in fact already drives 11 to 16 per cent of biodiversity loss and it is likely to become the largest driver of biodiversity loss by the end of the century.

The food and agriculture sector makes the greatest contribution to biodiversity recovery. Image: Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra

A circular food system also halts pollution while boosting resilience

These shifts could also help mitigate pollution. So far, much of the global circular economy discourse around pollution has centred around the scourge of marine plastics. While there is scant research into the severity of the threat species are facing from plastics in the oceans, an often-cited figure holds that 267 species, among them many species of turtles, are affected.

The source of pollution with the most adverse impacts on biodiversity, however, is runoff from fields. It is less visible than plastic litter but the eutrophication accruing downstream can create large dead zones void of most life. A regenerative transition in the food system in line with a circular economy offers a remedy to this challenge by improving soil permeability and retaining nutrients on the fields and in the soil, for example, by using cover crops to help avoid leakage and by adding nitrogen-fixating varieties into crop rotations thereby allowing for a modelled 30 per cent reduction in nitrogen inputs onto croplands in the study. Similarly, as a recent Chatham House paper suggests, in Europe, a dietary shift to plant-based proteins could help to achieve at least a 50 per cent reduction in nitrogen loss levels in addition to changes in technological measures and management at the farm level.

While a circular transformation in the food system would have advantages from the point of view of environmental sustainability, there are also many economic benefits from doing more with less. By designing out waste, we can get more value from what we already have. This is possible by reducing food wasted and lost at every step along the value chain.

This also applies to how we use grain. For example, in Finland, almost two thirds of the country’s grain is consumed by livestock while less than one sixth is eaten by humans. By processing the grain directly for human consumption, or converting it into alternative proteins rather than meat, it is possible to retain more of the value of the grain, saving more calories for human consumption.

This is increasingly important as global food prices have been rising, amplified by the multitude of crises in the past 15 years, most recently by the war in Ukraine, which has exacerbated global inflation. For example, it is predicted that in two years, the price of wheat will have increased by 210 per cent.

Beyond giving us more from less, the suggested circular shifts in the food system can boost resilience and serve as an important buffer when faced with volatile commodity markets, fragile supply chains and an overreliance on a small number of critical inputs from one or a few exporting countries. The exposure to all three of these factors can be mitigated if we reduce waste or input needs across production.

Input needs can also be reduced by regenerative agriculture, not least in terms of the need for nitrogen fertilizers, the cost of which are closely linked to energy prices. Natural gas can account for as much as 70-80 per cent of the operating costs of ammonia and urea production – the cost of which has gone up by more than three times in Eastern Europe since 2019.

Furthermore, as another Chatham House paper argues, diversifying food production – through moving from major grains to alternative crops and through changes to food processing to utilize different ingredients – and lower meat consumption can contribute to greater market resilience, food security and better public health, ensuring more varied and nutrient-rich food is available to a greater number of people, while supporting greater biodiversity and lower emissions.

A circular food system is not possible without systems thinking and a global rules-based order

Systems thinking is a vital part of the circular economy. As the concept has gained traction very fast, this tenet has not always remained at the heart of the circular economy, as a multitude of actors have sought to independently interpret and operationalize the concept by zooming in on its parts. Such a devolved approach to exploring the different facets of the circular economy is crucial if it is to effectively be mainstreamed.

However, it is equally important to also zoom out and observe the whole. Unless the understanding of the whole system and interactions of its elements is not retained, unintended consequences are likely and transformative change will remain out of reach.

When faced with disruptions to international trade and a climate emergency, there are risks that the wrong conclusions are arrived at by only focusing on parts of the system. While bringing production nearer the country where consumption happens is necessary to reduce exposure to overly brittle supply chains, and to reduce consumption-driven biodiversity loss abroad, most countries are too small to have a fully circular economy on their own as all components can rarely be sourced or remanufactured solely within the confines of one country. Similarly, different countries have different agricultural conditions, such as soil quality, precipitation and sunlight, allowing for competitive advantages compared to local food production.

A collective withdrawal into more isolated and smaller economic entities with export bans would also risk sapping the global economy of its vitality if comparative advantages could no longer be enjoyed in production. Such a regionalization of food production undermines resilience should an extreme weather event strike one country with limited trade flows.

The international rules-based order is central for the circular transition which cannot happen without trade and commonly agreed and adopted standards for circularity and an exchange of new innovations especially between the Global North and South. A recent report by the IEEP, Sitra and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and a study by Chatham House, both highlight the central role of greater collaboration at the global level in achieving an inclusive circular transition.

Food system transformation is critical for tacking the current polycrisis

Policymakers and civil servants must act amid the ongoing crises. As resources are becoming scarcer, the world needs to be able to get more value out of them and distribute them better while minimizing the negative social and environmental impacts from production.

Coordination across ministries and public agencies is more important than ever to ensure that we prioritize measures which help tackle several crises at once, from the triple crisis of biodiversity loss, climate change and pollution, to food insecurity, inflation, price volatility and supply disruptions.

The challenges are many, but so are the solutions, and the good news is that a few, well-targeted solutions can tackle multiple challenges at once and a circular transformation of the food system presents a critical area to start with.