circular economy food

Circular economies for urban food

This week I’m in Scotland for book launch events, and on the train I’ve been reading the latest report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Cities and Circular Economy for Food. 80% of all food will be consumed in cities by 2050, which makes cities very influential in how food is produced and distributed. Despite their apparent separation from food production, they have a role to play in shifting towards more sustainable farming.

Here’s a useful flow chart depicting the inputs to the world’s food, and how they are lost along the way. As the report says, our food system is “overwhelmingly linear”.

Of all the nutrients put into the cities through the global food system, less than 2% are reused. That means increased pressure on land and water supplies, ongoing dependence on fossil fuels and the risk of soil depletion and shortage.

A more circular economy approach to food in cities would include localising food production where possible to reduce the inputs needed in the first place. Cities can support farmers using regenerative farming practices, whether that is organic farming, low till, or other techniques – using the demand power of cities to drive change.

Waste can be reduced, not just by cutting out avoidable waste, but by finding uses for food waste that can’t be avoided. Toast beer springs to mind, brewed from unsold bread at bakeries. There are all kinds of opportunities to reuse waste for energy and for restoring soil.

The report also points out that while food is grown in the country, it is designed and marketed in the cities. That’s where the marketers plan their campaigns to promote a new breakfast cereal or health drink. Those processes could also be used to promote healthier and more regenerative forms of agriculture. We see this already with ‘buzz foods’ such as Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat, plant based foods that get people talking and that reduce the psychological barriers to people eating less meat.

Creating more circular food systems, it turns out, isn’t just a matter for those in the countryside. Lots more to explore in the full report here.

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