Circularity in Food and Agriculture Systems – A New Way Forward

March 3, 2021

In our recent report, 21st Century Agriculture Renaissance: Solutions from the Land, SfL lays out a new vision for global agriculture and pathways to attain it.

One new and exciting frontier we think holds promise and priority is the transition to circular food and agriculture production systems enabled by innovation and technology. A special publication (available via PDF or e-reader online) issued this week by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) – a SfL research partner – envisions the circular flows that need to replace the linear orientation of our current food and agricultural systems.

The March/April issue of Resource, ASABE’s journal, emphasizes that the linear model follows a “take, make and dispose” continuum and allows a 30 to 50 percent loss of food (along with nitrogen, carbon and other raw materials) as landfill waste. Meanwhile, in the next three decades the world faces an increase in food demand of 50 percent to 70 percent – amid declining resources and loss of biodiversity.

Transforming food and agriculture to circular systems characterized by “make, use and recycle” pathways is “a global challenge,” and the report identifies 2050 as the deadline for a solution. At the core of the paper is the observation that “waste does not occur in nature. One organism’s waste is another organism’s food,” a circumstance which creates “closed-loop cycles of growth, decay, and reuse.” The challenge is finding ways to mimic nature’s zero-waste efficiency.

A whole-systems approach is resilient and has a different perspective on efficiency: Being prepared for the known (climate change), as well as the unexpected (COVID-19). Specialization brings benefits in terms of linear economic efficiency, but can be a burden in extraordinary times, as when wholesale demand for food dried up in the COVID pandemic and packing houses could not easily re-tool to meet burgeoning retail demand. As a result, vast quantities of meat, dairy, and produce went to waste.

The seeming dissonance between efficiency and effectiveness is visible in production agriculture as well. What flood-irrigation may lack in “efficiency” on a ranch may be very effective in promoting biodiversity and managing water for downstream uses. There may be little short-term economic efficiency in planting cover crops that have no market value, but there are multiple and lasting benefits to healthy, stable soil.

Circular systems encompasses a wide range of techniques and technologies, but their pursuit is ultimately more of a philosophy—a new, yet ultimately timeless and natural way of looking at food and agriculture. We find many similarities between ASABE’s approach and our own way of looking at agriculture’s future.

The ASABE report digs into details of how to bring circularity to various subsets (open-field, controlled-environment, and livestock systems) of the linear food and agriculture models. But, like SfL’s recommendations in the 21st Century Agricultural Renaissance report, they are not overly prescriptive. Instead, as with SfL’s, they rely on guiding principles, or pathways, that allow for different circumstances and conditions across the country and around the world. Each subset looks at the entire value chain, not just the end products.

This holistic approach, also embraced by SfL, recognizes that a circular system does not allow for changing one part of the system without considering how all the others will be affected.

ASABE highlighted three reports published in recent years by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine that looked at sustainability in food and agricultural systems. One noted that “incremental changes in current systems will not meet future challenges.” Another identified five grand challenges:

  • Sustainable supplies of food, energy, and water.
  • Curbing climate change and adapting to its impacts.
  • Designing a future without pollution and waste.
  • Creating efficient, healthy, and resilient cities.
  • Fostering informed decision-making and actions.

All are part of SfL’s 21st Century Agriculture Renaissance. But we would add a few key points to this list: Farmers need to be a part of the decision-making process; and farms and rural communities must be included with healthy and resilient cities.

ASABE has done a great service in the release of this publication, and we are pleased and honored to work with this group in advancing our shared vision of agriculture’s future.

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An Agricultural Renaissance, led by innovative and entrepreneurial farmers, ranchers and foresters constructing sustainable, profitable and resilient systems that lay the foundation for a world of abundance on many scales capable of producing nutritious food, feed, fiber, clean energy, healthy ecosystems, quality livelihoods, and strong rural economies.