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A circular revolution?

2th February 2019

In a world with a growing population and limited resources available to feed everyone, a report by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation concludes that circular economy principles are the best way forward. Presented at the World Economic Forum, the report revealed that embedding such practices within the global agri-food sector could contribute US$2.7tr to the global economy.

With the current business model – the status quo in global food production – for every US$1 spent on food, governments and charities spend US$2 to compensate for the negative effects on health, environment and economies. The report warns that if nothing is done, around 5m people will die each year as a result of food-related conditions, including obesity, people suffering from malnutrition and those affected by environmental degradation caused by food production.

Foundation founder Dame Ellen MacArthur pressed for urgent change to change food systems which are wasteful and damaging to the environment while undermining health. The report suggests making world food systems circular, with all products and by-products either eaten, composted or otherwise valorized. At present an estimated third of these resources are wasted.

The report estimates US$550bn in healthcare costs could be saved by minimising pesticide and antibiotic use, reducing air pollution, water contamination, food-borne diseases and antimicrobial resistance. Greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by an estimated 4.3 billion tonnes CO2 equivalents

But the biggest savings would be realised by creating circularity within urban food systems which will encompass 80% of the world’s population by 2050.  However, the report warns that ensuring true circularity within urban food systems require “unprecedented collaborations” between food brands, producers, retailers, city governments and waste managers.

It’s a lofty vision, calling for a “regenerative mindset that focuses on desired outcomes” food waste to be “designed out” and “peri-urban agriculture” to play its part. There are buzzwords a-plenty but the report provides limited detail on the costs of such a transformation and who would bear them.