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Circular economy can transform food in order to combat climate change
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Circular economy can transform food in order to combat climate change

Circular economy can transform food to fight climate change


  • As food diversity has decreased, so has the resilience to climate change-related threats like pests, diseases and weather shocks.
  • Our food must be made from the best ingredients available, not just what nature has to offer. Design Nature must thrive.
  • Businesses have a huge opportunity to design food that is sustainable for the environment and make it mainstream.

The climate and biodiversity conference is in progress. This means that food is becoming a more prominent part of the economy. Our current food system is the main driver of biodiversity loss. It accounts for a third global greenhouse gas emissions. This has prompted policymakers and businesses alike to set targets and take steps to make improvements in the sector.

However, incremental improvements to the current system won’t be enough to address these problems at scale and speed. It is necessary to fundamentally transform the industry of food. We should not bend nature to produce food. Design Nature must thrive.

Food designed to promote nature-positive outcomes

Like most of the things around us – our clothes, phones, buildings – much of the food we eat has been designed, from breakfast cereals to pasta. Food brands and supermarkets create these food offerings using a few ingredients. They make decisions about how the food tastes, looks, and how nutritious it can be. These decisions affect not only customers, farmers, and suppliers but also the environment.

Today, just four crops – wheat, rice, corn, and potatoes – provide almost 60% of the calories consumed globally. As the food system becomes more homogenized and only a few varieties are available of each of these staple crops, there is a decrease in the diversity and breeds of domesticated animals and plants. The food system’s resilience to climate change-related threats has declined as has the variety of foods it produces. Producers rely on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to overcome these challenges, but that reliance contributes to the food system’s climate and biodiversity impact.

While bad decisions can be made at the food designing stage, there is a huge opportunity for businesses that design food for nature-positive outcomes. By creating nature-positive food, the top 10 food brands and supermarkets could transform 40% of the UK’s agricultural land. Although many of these companies are contributing to the problem, they have the power and influence to make a difference and offer the solutions consumers want.

Businesses can create product portfolio strategies that reflect a design for nature mindset. They will select ingredients that are diverse, low-impact, upcycled, and regeneratively made. This is the foundation of a circular design for food.

Image: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

How can we reinvent breakfast with circular design?

A breakfast table staple is a bowl or two of cereal. This is typically made of wheat, corn, or oatmeal. It is possible to reap huge benefits by simply changing the ingredients to use perennial versions of these crops instead of traditional, annual varieties. Common wheat cultivation in the US requires that the soil structure is disturbed and the crops are reseeded after each crop. Kernza, a perennial variety that is similar to native prairie grasses, can be substituted for conventional wheat varieties. It has deep roots and can sequester approximately 10 times more CO2 than traditional wheat varieties. A healthier grain is also possible due to the deeper roots.

Another way to lower the impact is to splash plant-based milk on top. More than 100 businesses now produce milk alternatives from plant-based ingredients. These milk alternatives have been shown to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, land use, and biodiversity impacts, compared to conventionally produced milk. Unusual and exotic sounding varieties such as amaranth, tiger nuts and duckweed in fact serve to broaden agriculture’s genetic diversity, while upcycling can maximize the value of existing crops. TakeTwo, for instance, makes barley milk from upcycling wasted grain. This is a byproduct of beer brewing and is often used for animal feed.

Cows’ milk still has a role in a healthy food system, as plant-based alternatives – not always as nutritionally dense as dairy, especially without fortification – may not be appropriate for young children and the elderly, or for consumers in developing countries where diet can be limited. You can produce this in a way which has regenerative results for nature using managed intensivegrazing (MIG). This can lead to fewer dairy cows than traditional methods. However, farmers can still make regenerative production economically viable by using silvopasture methods where trees and crops are combined with grazing animals to provide shelter and fodder, and additional cash crops. Diverse grasses and crops can be planted on pasture to optimize forage, and – mimicking migratory herds – livestock grouped on areas of pasture and moved frequently. The livestock get a varied diet, and they trample organic matter into the ground. Regenerative dairy can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by half and biodiversity loss by 20 percent, without affecting milk yields. Farmers also benefit by $240 per hectare in increased profitability.

Image: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

5 steps to make nature-positive food mainstream

However, ingredient sourcing only part of the equation. A circular design of food must be applied to maximize economic and environmental benefit. To illustrate, imagine a new cereal brand, Climate Crunch. This brand concept is based on a future that values nature and makes cereal bars and cereals from wheat and peas. They also use minimal tillage and less synthetic inputs. Intercropping wheat and leguminous crops such as peas can reduce the need of synthetic inputs. They fix nitrogen into the soil, improve soil health, promote biodiversity, and help to move away from homogeneous farming. Cultivating two crops diversifies and boosts farmers’ income and spreads their exposure to risk.

Two billion people worldwide are currently suffering from malnutrition. According to some estimates, the world will need 60% more food by 2050 to feed its population. Yet the agricultural sector is ill-equipped to meet this demand: 700 million of its workers currently live in poverty, and it is already responsible for 70% of the world’s water consumption and 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

While new technologies may make our food systems more sustainable, efficient, and more sustainable, the agricultural sector is far behind other sectors in terms technology adoption.

Launched in 2018, the Forum’s Innovation with a Purpose PlatformThis large-scale partnership facilitates the adoption and use of new technologies to transform the way we produce and distribute our food.

The platform works with over 50 partners institutions and 1,000 leaders worldwide to leverage emerging technologies to make food systems more sustainable, inclusive, and efficient.

Learn moreInnovation with a Purpose: How it can make a difference contact usFind out how you can get involved.

Major food retailers and food brands have the power and ability to bring about meaningful change in the food system. Businesses can offer better choices for customers, farmers, the environment, and for their customers by carefully planning and sourcing.

These benefits can be realized by businesses taking five steps to make nature-positive foods mainstream.

1. To make nature-positive product portfolios a reality, create ambitious and well-resourced action plan.

2. Create a new partnership with farmers

3. To showcase the potential of circular food design, create iconic products.

4. Contribute to and utilize common definitions and metrics on-farm.

5. Support policies that promote a natural-positive food system.


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