HomeProgressCircular economy in agri-food systems, an economic urgency

Circular economy in agri-food systems, an economic urgency

The perma-crisis of the European agri-food systems, still afflicted by unsustainable production costs, brings the reflections of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (UK) on the circular economy in the agrifood systems.

The EFSA and ECDC's One Health report 'Food circular design study' (2021) in fact highlights how the circular economy is an urgent need for the economic sustainability of businesses and supply chains in the medium and long term. (1) Here's how.

1) Agri-food systems and economic sustainability, premise

Economic sustainability – a fundamental premise of all agri-food systems – is threatened both by geopolitical factors (conflicts and obstacles to access resources, e.g. water, soil, energy, fertilizers), and by market distortions (e.g. monopolies and speculations), both from environmental factors (e.g. drought and desertification, extreme climatic events).

The environmental factors they are in turn interdependent, to a large extent, on agri-food policies and on the choices of the protagonists of their supply chains. (2) In fact, one third of global greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to agri-food systems (Greenhouse Gases, GHGs), as well as more than 50% impact on biodiversity loss. (3)

3) Business as usual vs. circular economy

The data that emerge from some research – although inevitably approximate, in the complexity of the systems and the correlations – indicate that the impact of food production on the costs of public health, the environment and the economy would be equal to double their value. (2)

A transition of agri-food systems, according to Ellen MacArthur Foundation, could theoretically lead to reductions of up to half of the aforementioned costs, approximately 5,7 trillion dollars globally. (4) Passing from a linear model of 'take make waste' to that of circular economy.

4) Food circular design, the report of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation

'The big food redesign: Regenerating nature with circular economy' underlines the decisive role of large industrial groups and the retail in the ecological transition of food systems towards a circular economy model.

40% of the agricultural area Used in the EU, according to the report of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation , depends on the choices of ten giants alone. Which are today part of the problems mentioned above but could become part of the solution, and benefit from it.

5) Food circular (re-)design

Food circular (re-)design is the approach proposed by Ellen MacArthur Foundation to apply the circular economy to agri-food systems starting from re-design of consumer products.

A common thread for research and innovation, involving those who actually dominate the value chain to trace the production chains of ingredients and packaging materials upstream, (5) up to primary agricultural production.

The economy – even before the ESG criteria (Environmental, Social, Governance) which even today require a growing number of operators the Corporate sustainability reporting (CSR) – is the essential logic to follow.

6) Reformulating food in terms of sustainability

The specialised farming model proposed in the report in question considers the reformulation of foods - and the choice of their ingredients - as a key to promoting the circular economy in agri-food systems, from farm to fork. And at the same time achieve economic sustainability goals - higher yields, lower costs - as well as environmental ones.

6.1) Agrobiodiversity

60% of energy supplies food, according to Ellen MacArthur Foundation, derives today from four crops: corn, rice, wheat and potatoes. Diversifying the ingredients used in food and feed production could stimulate the recovery of agrobiodiversity, recovering many locally relevant ingredients with less impact on ecosystems.

Agrobiodiversity postulates greater attention to local contexts, with regard to traditional crops which are often linked to the environmental and climatic characteristics of the territories. (6) And it can translate not only into the enrichment of the offer but also into the greater resilience of crops, possibly also in the enhancement of local agri-food systems.

6.2) Ingredients with a lower environmental impact

The impact assessment environmental impact of the different crops should also guide the choices of diversification of ingredients for food and feed. Taking into account the consumption of land, water, input in agriculture, but also of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).

The replacement even partial wheat flour with pea flour in breakfast cereals, for example, can help reduce carbon emissions Greenhouse Gases up to 40% and biodiversity loss up to 5%, at the level of primary agricultural production.

Legumes, as highlighted in the FAO report 'The global economy of pulses' (2019), can in fact reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizers by fixing nitrogen in the soil to a much higher extent than that of many cereal crops. As well as strengthening soil health.

6.3) Upcycling

THEupcycling it has extraordinary potential both in the reduction of production costs - enhancing the virtuous recovery of co-products with lower added value (7,8) - and in the environmental management of waste which in some cases is otherwise destined for waste (9,10). #wasteless.

virtuous recovery of the lateral flows of goods has the primary effect of relieving pressure on ecosystems and maximizing the return on investments in land, agricultural inputs, energy and other productive factors in agriculture and processing. Nothing more logical.

6.4) Agroecology

Agroecology it is the key to regeneration and the circular economy in agri-food systems (FAO, 2019). (11) We therefore have regard to agronomic practices based on the minimization of soil tillage, crop rotation and the intercropping of different varieties, the elimination of synthetic pesticides and herbicides and the drastic reduction of other inputs. (12)

The organic method – following a conversion period, which is also useful for restoring soil health – allows for increases in yields and provides additional remuneration for farmers. (13) In addition to generating significant benefits for biodiversity and ecosystems, with lasting benefits in terms of resilience and food security.

7) Food circular (re-design), the positive results on three supply chains

The application of regenerative methods described above to the supply chains of three widely consumed ingredients – wheat, potatoes and dairy products – shows how this approach can reduce greenhouse gas emissions (Greenhouse Gases, GHG) and biodiversity loss of 70% and 50%, respectively, at the farm level.

The reduction of the environmental impact above in an 8-year horizon, according to the study conducted by Ellen MacArthur Foundation, is accompanied by a 50% increase in food production and a net increase of $3.100 in annual remuneration per hectare for farmers, compared to the baseline situation.

8) Food circular re-design, five recommendations

Il report – in addition to offering examples of the application of the circular economy in various supply chains of the agri-food systems – it proposes five recommendations aimed at companies that intend to start a process of 'circular redesign for food':

1) create ambitious and well-funded action plans to transform the product portfolio towards greening,

2) create a new dynamic of collaboration with farmers, to develop and enhance agroecology,

3) develop iconic products to showcase the potential of design circular for food,

4) contribute to the development and application of common metrics and standards, e.g. organic, on the farm and in the supply chain,

5) advocate for policies that support a food system that is positive for ecosystems and biodiversity.

9) Provisional conclusions

Thefood circle (re-design)', according to Ellen MacArthur Foundationcould generate annual benefits of up to $2,7 trillion by 2050 if the proposed measures are adopted on a global scale. The circular economy applied to agri-food systems plays a key role in fostering these opportunities.

Dario Dongo and Giulia Pietrollini


(1) Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2021). The big food redesign study: Regenerating nature with the circular economy https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/the-big-food-redesign-study 2021

(2) Boston Consulting Group (2021). The biodiversity crisis is a business crisis. Chatham House, Food system impacts on biodiversity loss – three levers for food system transformation in support of nature

(3) Dario Dongo. Biodiversity and climate emergency, the common thread. Égalité... 13.2.20

(4) Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2019). Cities and circular economy for food https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/cities-and-circular-economy-for-food

(5) Dario Dongo, Luca Foltran. Plastic, a global commitment against waste. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 3.11.18

(6) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. Agrobiodiversity, ecological transition and mycoproteins. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 29.4.23

(7) Dario Dongo. Upcycling, the main road to research and innovation. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 1.1.23

(8) Dario Dongo and Giulia Pietrollini. Upcycling economy, upcycled food. The revolution against waste. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 31.1.23

(9) Dario Dongo and Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. Wasteless, EU research project on circular economy and blockchain. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 5.9.22

(10) Dario Dongo and Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. EcoeFISHent, upcycling and blue economy in the fish supply chain. The EU research project. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 18.10.21

(11) Dario Dongo, Camilla Fincardi. Agroecology, SDGs, salvation. The FAO Decalogue. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 12.4.20

(12) Dario Dongo, Marta Singed. Sustainable use of pesticides, demands for civil society reform. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 4.9.22

(13) Dario Dongo, Giulia Orsi. Organic farming. Resilience and food security, fair remuneration. The Swedish study. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 3.3.21

(14) Sabrina Bergamini. 10 years of agroecology to save Europe, the IDDRI study. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 25.3.19

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Dario Dongo, lawyer and journalist, PhD in international food law, founder of WIISE (FARE - GIFT - Food Times) and Égalité.

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Graduated in industrial biotechnology and passionate about sustainable development.

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