Circular economy in the food system
To evaluate how the food system is evolving, we created a guiding framework.
Common starting point: a guiding framework
Our food report presents a guiding framework specifically for circular economy in the food system and provides a first set of indicators to monitor the food system.
A holistic vision on what circular economy means for the food system is currently missing in (and outside of) Flanders. As this is an essential requirement to assess what to include in a monitor and to evaluate whether the system is evolving towards circularity a guiding framework is created in this report.
Through a literature review the available knowledge on (aspects of) CE and food from both academic and policy documents was brought together and supplemented with the insights of stakeholders in Flanders through a participatory Delphi approach.
A circular system for food in essence comes down to minimizing the material demand and associated environmental impact of this system, while still ensuring that the nutritional need in Flanders is met for all citizens through a safe, balanced and healthy diet.
3 central themes
The created framework has three central themes:
- the optimization of inputs;
- the optimization of food products;
- and the optimization of residual streams.
For each of these themes, strategies to minimize the material demand and associated environmental impacts of the food system are discussed.
The food system is unique within circular economy in a number of ways.
- Regarding the first theme, input use, a key aspect for this system is that it is difficult to reuse inputs in closed cycle systems, as they re-enter natural biochemical cycles through their use.
- For the second theme, food products, it is key to account for the inevitable single-use and biological nature of food products. High level circular economy strategies – like reuse and repair – aimed at increasing and extending the use of products cannot be applied to the food system, as after use the product becomes mainly excreta. Instead, the use of biomass in the system should be optimised.
- The same is true for the third theme, residual streams, as the inevitable organic stream associated with food production and consumption should be optimally valorised.
Very complex system
The food system is very complex, crossing multiple policy domains, like agriculture, environment and health. Due to this, current expertise and initiatives on circularity within the food system are spread out among numerous different stakeholders. The framework created in this study can provide a common starting point for the different stakeholders working across policy domains on the different aspects of circular economy for food and can be used to provide guidance for future policy initiatives.
In this report the created framework is used to guide the search for circular economy indicators for the food system in Flanders. The data presented in this report is a first attempt at summarizing the food system in Flanders in terms of circularity.
From what was found, it seems that while the food system is intrinsically circular to a certain extent – due to its connection with the biosphere – increasing production and consumption have moved the system away from the underlying natural cycles.
Subsequently, today there is a lot of room to optimize the circularity of the system on all three fronts of input use, product use, and use of the residual streams.
Input use has to be brought in line with the carrying capacity of natural ecosystems through further reductions in total use, further increases in the share obtained from environmentally sustainable sources, and by halting losses to the environment.
The use of food products can be ii further optimized by addressing excesses – in the form of overconsumption and food loss – and through shifting diets towards low-impact products.
Lastly, the use of residual streams from the food system can be further optimised by increasing selective collection and facilitating more high-level valorisation according to the cascade.
In general, transitioning the food system to a circular economy will require a dual focus, by using technological innovation to optimize current cycles, while also focusing on system innovation by questioning the existence and size of current cycles within the limits set by the planetary boundaries.
Work in progress
The high number of indicators discussed throughout this report demonstrates that the food system will not be easily analysed or summarized. The emphasis of circularity strategies differs for the various actors in the food system. The study is focused on the three foremost links in the food chain: primary production, consumption, and waste collection and treatment, and is based on reframing already accessible data, collected for other purposes. Hence, it was not yet possible to work out first-best indicators for all relevant aspects of a circular economy for the food system.
Further research is required to address current gaps, like food processing, and finetune the available indicators. Also, while it is clear that current input use bears very high material demands and environmental impacts, it is currently not at all clear which circular targets should be strived for with regard to local and global environmental boundaries.
Further research could focus on the development of scenarios for a circular food system, enabling to assess the implications of scenarios and providing input for setting target values for particular indicators. This study fills in the current need for a framework around CE for the food system and provides a first impetus of what is possible with the available data.