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Circular Economy Q2 2023

Nature can thrive if we collectively change the way we design food

two Tractors planting fields
two Tractors planting fields
iStock / Getty Images Plus / BrianBrownImages

Claire Murphy

Editor, The Ellen McArthur Foundation

Circular food design could feed (and water) everyone without depleting nature. 

Guinness is helping farmers use regenerative approaches — or, as the company defines it, ‘putting in more than is taken out. 

One of the major aims of the project is to regenerate soils so that they are healthier, more structurally sound and so better able to store (sequester) carbon. In time this should result in a reduction in the use of synthetic fertiliser. Other goals are the improvement of water quality and local biodiversity. The brewing giant will help farmers share learnings from the three-year pilot, with the aim that barley grown will be used to brew Guinness. This is one example of a desire to redesign our food system to allow nature to thrive while maintaining yields.  

Current food design and its consequences  

Globally, an area of arable land larger than the size of England degrades each year, sometimes rendering it unfit for food production. Our global industrial food system not only generates one-third of greenhouse gases, it is also the principal driver of biodiversity loss.  

Plentiful diversity of plants isn’t just nice to see on a day out; it sustains our human species. But it is undermined by the fact that 60% of the calories we consume are provided by just four crops (wheat, rice, maize and potatoes). 

Plentiful diversity of plants isn’t just nice to see
on a day out; it sustains our human species.

Hope through a circular economy approach 

The top 10 food manufacturers and retailers influence the use of 40% of agricultural land in the EU and UK. They can introduce positive change by adopting a circular economy approach to food design. This is an actionable framework which makes use of four design principles: use lower impact, diverse and upcycled ingredients and crops, all produced in a way that regenerates the environment. 

One study found that, just for wheat, dairy and potato production across the UK and EU, this system could reduce farm-level greenhouse gas emissions by up to 70% and increase biodiversity on farms by around 50%, as well as eventually boosting output and farmer profitability. 

How food manufacturers and businesses can help 

Ingredient selection choices made by product development teams (and buying decisions by retailers) can actively enable farmers to regenerate nature. Moreover, one-third of food produced globally ends up being wasted. Manufacturers can help to stem this tide by opting for upcycled ingredients that are often consigned to the bin or left to rot in the field. 

Like Guinness’s pilot project, businesses can create more collaborative dynamics with farmers to ensure all ingredients have been grown in ways that support biodiversity and keep our air and waterways clean. 

This kind of positive action will mean farmers can better manage natural systems to keep the aims of food production and the protection of nature in harmony. 

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