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Transition to a circular food system

Opinion: The future food system


A desired food system for the future is one that ensures resource security, food and nutrition security, and economic opportunities. However, the way we currently produce and consume our food exacerbates excessive use of scarce non-renewable minerals, such as potassium and phosphorus, which will not exist in future. These are lost in human waste and food by-products, which often end up in landfill, thereby contributing towards greenhouse gas emissions. While 800 million people worldwide are food insecure and vulnerable to micronutrient deficiencies, the equivalent of six garbage trucks of edible food is wasted every second globally; less than 2% of the valuable nutrients is valorised safely and productively. These nutrients are necessary for sustainable agricultural production and an inadequate amount of essential nutrients leads to poor crop growth and limit production.

We can, however, most efficiently build a food system by adopting circular economy principles in food production and consumption. A circular economy envisions the efficient use of natural resources, making the most of food and residue streams, with the aim to use natural resources for longer and, thus, decrease the demand for new natural resources. The following are examples of circular economy principles:

The efficient use of natural resources involves the recycling of minerals into the soil that are otherwise destined for landfill or incineration. This can be done through composting where organic food waste is left to decompose in the soil, thereby reintroducing the nutrients back into the land. Reducing the demand for new resources also reduces the demand on the energy required for mineral extraction.

Permaculture is a regenerative agricultural technique that uses composting as opposed to chemical fertilisers for soil fertility, which also reduces the capital required for fertilisers. A Regional Schools and Colleges Permaculture Programme in Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe promotes this technique in developing food forests with fruits, staples - such as maize – legumes, herbs, spices, vegetables and poultry. Food waste generated from the school children’s households is used as soil mulch to improve the top soil fertility, which then improves crop yields. Over 200 school communities are implementing this programme, which has assisted in improving food and nutrition security for surrounding communities.

Making the most of food includes reducing food waste by diverting the edible food destined for landfill to feed people without enough to eat, thereby promoting food and nutrition security. To achieve this, in Germany, FoodLoop developed an app with a platform that offers products at reduced prices just before they expire. A Finnish based organisation, ResQ Club has developed an app for the redistribution of leftover food in selected cities in Finland, Germany, Poland and Sweden. Through these efforts, 65 t of food was saved from being wasted between 2016 and 2017.

It is also important to make the most out of residue streams by creating value from material considered as waste. For example, to reduce waste in coffee production, coffee grounds can be used as substrate for growing oyster mushrooms. Each mushroom kit can grow three batches of mushrooms producing a total of around 0.5 kg. Another company based in the UK, Bio Bean, is recycling coffee ground waste into coffee logs to be used as biofuel.

Food waste and residue streams produce more methane than animal manure in biogas production. Potential job opportunities in biogas production are in the manufacture and distribution of stoves at household and business level, and the establishment of bioreactors in urban settings are examples of job opportunities. In the Africa Biogas Partnership Programme, for example, 350 full-time and part-time jobs have been created between 2016 and 2017 in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, collectively.

Connecting the circular economy

Taking lessons from Europe and China – the pioneers in circular economy implementation - it is necessary to align supply and demand markets in circular food supply chains in Africa by encouraging the participation of all stakeholders involved. The presence of infrastructure, for example a plant for biogas production in the city, decreases the capital investment required, while availability of the requisite skills and knowledge contributes towards a successful transition. Most importantly, policy plays a role in the successful implementation of a circular food system at national level.

There is a process to the transition to a circular economy in food systems; that is to think, collaborate and act. To think involves knowledge transfer of technological and socially-oriented circular economy initiatives. The African Circular Economy Network (ACEN) creates such a platform, connecting African countries in the transition to a circular economy. Currently, action without the thought process or the collaborative effort is what ACEN can address concerning Africa’s adoption of production and consumption methods that maintain and regenerate its environmental resources.