How the circular economy can help transform food to fight climate crisis and build biodiversity


    By Emma Chow Food Initiative lead, Ellen MacArthur Foundation; Originally published by the World Economic Forum

    • As the diversity of foods produced has fallen, so too has the resilience of the food system to threats such as pests, diseases, weather shocks exacerbated by climate change.
    • Rather than bending nature to produce food, our food needs to be designed for nature to thrive.
    • There is an enormous opportunity for businesses to design food for nature-positive outcomes and make it mainstream.

    With the climate and biodiversity COPs in progress, one part of the economy increasingly finds itself in the spotlight: food. Our current food system is the primary driver of biodiversity loss and accounts for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, spurring businesses and policymakers alike to set targets and take action to make changes in the sector.

    But incremental improvements to the current system will not be enough to address these issues at scale and speed. A fundamental transformation of the food industry is needed; rather than bending nature to produce food, our food needs to be designed for nature to thrive.

    Food designed for 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 from a handful of ingredients, making decisions about how something tastes, how it looks, and how nutritious it is. These decisions not only affect 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. Only a few varieties of each of these staple crops are cultivated at scale and, overall, varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are increasingly being lost as the food system becomes more homogenized. As the diversity of foods produced has decreased, so too has the resilience of the food system to threats such as pests, diseases and extreme weather shocks exacerbated by climate change. 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 decisions made at the food design stage can have negative impacts, there is an enormous opportunity for businesses to design food for nature-positive outcomes and make it mainstream. The top 10 food brands and supermarkets can transform 40% of agricultural land in the UK and the EU by designing nature-positive food. While many of these players are currently part of the problem, their size and influence means they can be, and need to be, part of the solution and provide offerings consumers are looking for.

    To achieve this, businesses can set product portfolio strategies underpinned by a mindset of designing for nature, selecting ingredients that are: diverse, lower impact, upcycled and regeneratively produced. This is the basis of a circular design for food.

    Image: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

    How can we redesign breakfast using circular design for food

    Take a breakfast table staple like a bowl of cereal, commonly made of wheat, corn or oats. Just varying the ingredients to use perennial varieties of these crops rather than traditional, annual versions could offer huge benefits. For example, in the US cultivating common wheat requires yearly tilling and reseeding after each crop, degrading the soil structure in the process. Substituting for Kernza, a new perennial variety with deep roots that mimic native prairie grasses, could save mechanical inputs, build soil health, and sequester around 10 times more CO2 than conventional wheat varieties. Deeper roots also allow the plants to absorb more nutrients from the soil, producing a healthier grain.

    Splashing plant-based milk over the top is another lower impact twist. Over a hundred businesses are now producing milk alternatives using more than 30 different plant-based ingredients, which have been found to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, land use and biodiversity impacts compared to conventionally produced dairy 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. The brand TakeTwo, for example, makes barley milk by upcycling spent grain, a by-product of beer brewing that is usually wasted or 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. This too can be produced in a way that has regenerative outcomes for nature by using managed intensive grazing (MIG) of livestock. Although this can mean that fewer dairy cows can be reared than conventional methods, regenerative production can be made economically viable for farmers by using methods such as silvopasture, where trees and crops are integrated with grazing animals to provide shelter, 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 benefit from a diverse diet and trample organic matter and nutrients into the ground as they go. Dairy produced regeneratively in this way can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% and biodiversity loss by 20%, without affecting milk yields, while boosting profitability for farmers by $240 per hectare per year.

    Image: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

    5 actions to take nature-positive food mainstream

    However, ingredient sourcing is just part of the picture. For the best economic and environmental benefits, a circular design for food must be comprehensively applied. To illustrate, imagine a new cereal brand, Climate Crunch. This concept brand, from a nature-positive future, makes cereal and cereal bars from wheat and peas, grown together with minimum tillage and reduced synthetic inputs. Moving away from homogeneous agriculture by intercropping wheat with leguminous crops, like peas, can reduce the need for synthetic inputs by fixing nitrogen into the soil, building soil health, and fostering greater biodiversity. Cultivating two crops diversifies and boosts farmers’ income and spreads their exposure to risk.

    Major food brands and retailers have the power to drive meaningful change in our food system by seizing the opportunity of a circular economy for food and making nature-positive food the norm. Through careful design and sourcing, businesses can provide choices that are better for customers, better for farmers, and better for the environment.

    To realize these benefits, businesses can take five actions to make nature-positive food mainstream:

    1. Create ambitious and well-resourced action plans to make nature-positive product portfolios a reality.

    2. Create a new collaborative dynamic with farmers.

    3. Develop iconic products to showcase the potential of circular design for food.

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

    5. Advocate for policies that support a nature-positive food system.

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