In agriculture, circular economy of food proponents emphasize the importance of shifting toward a regenerative agricultural model that minimizes or eliminates the need for toxic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. It also prioritizes soil health and nutrient cycling, recapturing the nutrients currently lost through food waste, livestock manure, and even human waste. In some ways, transitioning toward regenerative agriculture will involve returning to traditional farming techniques such as composting and pasture-based livestock production. It may also involve new technologies and techniques like precision irrigation.
Off the farm, much of the circular economy of food discourse focuses on food waste. Globally, roughly a third of all food ends up being wasted, which squanders all the resources used for its production and distribution. In countries like the U.S., the vast majority of this food waste is disposed of in landfills, exacerbating climate change by generating significant quantities of methane, and causing the nutrients within this food to be lost rather than cycled back into agricultural production. Rising awareness of the issue has prompted stakeholders across the food system to recognize the financial, environmental, and societal opportunities afforded by food waste reduction. This, in turn, is inspiring the implementation of solutions ranging from improved inventory management to standardized date labeling, and from donation matching software to municipal composting operations.
However, to move beyond reducing loss and harm and towards a regenerative food system—a circular economy of food—we have to ensure that our food and the nutrients imbedded within can cycle as a part of the nutrient cycle. We have to design for circularity from the very inception of a product, and rethink the system using zero based design. To unlock this we will need to align on language and provide design principles and metrics for all those designing our food, including restaurants, large CPGs and emerging entrepreneurs.
Another primary area of focus for circular economy of food advocates is packaging. While food packaging has helped facilitate transport, extend shelf-life, and offer convenience to consumers and food businesses, its production often generates pollution and requires unsustainable resource extraction. Furthermore, most packaging has become single-use, and is ultimately sent to landfills, or disposed of in the natural environment. Today, circular economy of food leaders are rethinking packaging, eliminating harmful materials by design, incorporating renewable materials and reusable designs—or finding ways to eliminate the need for packaging in the first place.