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Novel approaches support future food systems

Developments in circular food production systems could aid efforts to meet UN Sustainable Development Goals, says Dr Simon Fraval.

Scientists and industry leaders recently gathered to take part in the newly formed Circular Food Systems Network. In this kick-off event, participants from around the world shared the details of innovations that will help nourish the world and regenerate ecological systems.

These inspiring ideas, which are designed to minimise waste in food systems, are described in a set of videos linked at the end of this post.

I was particularly interested in the world-leading innovations coming out of low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) in the tropics. When compared to temperate latitudes, these innovations need more emphasis on optimising for economic mobility, human nutrition and equality; this also needs to be achieved in the context of a growing, more affluent human population, increased climate variability and reduced fossil fuel utilisation.

Agri-food systems can play a role in meeting many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly those relating to human wellbeing, such as zero hunger and reduced inequalities, and environmental stewardship, such as responsible consumption.

These goals are admirable, but unfortunately, as a global community, we are falling well short of these targets. There is growing consensus amongst scientists and policymakers that agri-food systems need to evolve rapidly to put us on track. Circular agri-food systems need to become the norm.

Circular agri-food system innovations are based on three principles. These are: plant biomass is the basic building block of food and should be used by humans first; by-products from food production, processing and consumption should be recycled back into the food system, and; we should use animals for what they’re good at – making use of waste and unlocking grassland resources.

From these three simple principles, scientists around the world have proposed a range of innovations. Some of these are a revival of traditional practices, such as food waste for animal feed and integrated farming systems. Others are more capital intensive, such as unlocking woody biomass.

Suggested innovations are in various stages of market readiness and have varied potential (summarised in my key-note presentation linked below). These encompass broadly five categories, namely: demand-side, utilising or returning bio-waste, land use planning, farm system short-term and farm system long-term.

As mentioned above, it’s important to consider all SDGs when deciding which innovations will work, and where. There can be unintended consequences in trying to make agri-food systems more circular at all costs.

For example, automation and robotics in agriculture show great promise for increasing farm complexity and maximising yield while reducing input use – the ultimate in precision agriculture. These technologies would allow sustainable intensification without dependence on labour. However, when assessing the implications of food system innovations on SDGs, scientists found that robotics could also have negative implications for equality, health and wellbeing.

In my view, there are four critical areas that need to be considered for the effective implementation of circular agri-food systems in tropical low- middle-income countries. Firstly, profitability is key. Existing closed-loop systems may become unviable as poverty abates. As wages increase, some farmers managing high-performing closed-loop systems will be less able to source low-cost workers for their labour-intensive operations. These dynamics need to be considered in assessing the viability of circular agri-food system innovations.

Secondly, demand for biomass is clearly a major driver of agri-food systems. Priorities between food, feed, fibre, fuel and other uses of biomass will differ by country. These priorities will also change as populations become increasingly affluent. Influencing these markets is immensely challenging given the vested interests of a powerful private sector and the conservative nature of the public sector in many nation states. Public policy is further constrained by a lack of governance, monitoring and enforcement. Still, it’s an absolute necessity to influence these markets.

Thirdly, any meaningful change will need a transfer of capital and technology to LMICs. These ideas for circular agri-food systems need to be backed with finance from wealthier countries to be able to meet environmental objectives, as well as meet local socio-economic needs. Development assistance as a proportion of GDP needs to ratchet up in OECD nations.

Finally, metrics matter. The evolution of farm systems and agri-food systems more broadly need to be guided by metrics that inform decision makers not just about the level of circularity but also the damage caused by leakage and the rate of flow within the system. At the Circular Food Systems Network kick-off event, Professor Martin van Ittersum of Wageningen University presented an innovative metric that counts the number of times resources are cycled through a system. More novel metrics are needed to complement cycle count.

For circular agri-food systems to become the norm we need action at global, regional and local levels. Such a wide-scale transformation has the potential to mitigate environmental degradation, while improving economic mobility, human nutrition and social equality.

Related links

Circular Food Systems Network

Key-note presentation – Circular Food Systems Network

Trends in Global Agricultural Land Use: Implications for Environmental Health and Food Security

Circularity in agricultural production

Articulating the effect of food systems innovation on the Sustainable Development Goals

Video link Bangladesh system

Video link Germany system

Video link Malawi-Zambia system

Video link Mediterranean system

Video link New Zealand system

Video link Nigeria system

Video link Peru system

Video link Reunion Island system

Video link Southern India system

Video link Arkansas, US system

Video link Upgrading of by-products

Image credit: Suus van den Akker