Meet the future of your plate: a Circular Agriculture
We owe a lot to modern-day agriculture. Following the Second World War, we made enormous technological strides and developed hundreds of innovative practices that allowed for intensification and yield increase at literally miraculous levels, savings countless lives and lifting millions of smallholder farmers from the edge of extreme poverty.
These innovations even led to Nobel prizes for people like Fritz Haber, a German chemist who invented a process that converts atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, a fertilizer now used to literally feed half the world; or Norman Borlaug, who introduced the so-called ‘industrialised agriculture’ that brought high yields and resilient crops to India, Pakistan, Mexico and other previously famine-prone regions of the world, all of which allowed to improve food security and affordability at levels never-before seen in human history.
However, what we are realising today is that the current food system, while having supported the world’s population boom and fuelled economic development, it didn’t come without a cost and a heavy one at that. The list of negative impacts for which our current agricultural production is responsible is large and it is impossible for you to not have come across at least one of these:
1/3 of total greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions, releasing up to 12.000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide every year (that’s 12000000000 kg);
Billions of tonnes of lost soil;
A looming antibiotic crisis (if you think COVID-19 is bad, wait until this hits);
Tens of thousands of deaths from pesticide exposure.
…and much more.
The challenge of our generation is not to throw away the old tabula rasa style, but to figure out how to keep and even improve the benefits of the current food system while applying everything that we have learned to mitigate and eventually eliminate its costs and negative externalities. The good news is, this transition has already started but it must be significantly accelerated in order to achieve a fully sustainable, socially acceptable, and environmentally and climate-performant food system. A significant part of the answer lies again with Circular Economy.
The Policy Tectonic Shift – the European Green Deal…
Everything today falls under the policy framework of the European Green Deal, which has the ultimate objective of making Europe the first Carbon-neutral continent (read: country) on the face of the planet by 2050. The challenge of agriculture is one of the most difficult to untangle in order to reach that goal. That is why agriculture plays a crucial role in the framework of the European Green Deal when it comes to fighting climate change and protecting biodiversity, with measures announced by the European Commission that will have wide-ranging impacts on farmers Europe-wide. To ensure that the goals of the European Green Deal will be reached, the European Commission already acknowledges that there is a need for a transformative approach to food production and distribution, which is also the key conclusion of the UN Summit on Biodiversity held in September 2020.
…and the New Agricultural Policy that comes with it
In order to operationalise the European Green Deal when it comes to food production, two global strategies were published by the European Commission: the European Strategy for Biodiversity 2030 and the Farm-to-Fork (F2F) Strategy.
Agriculture, in its most basic definition, is a way of managing natural resources, which we now know that it heavily depends on biodiversity for its resilience. A classic example of how biodiversity can work with farmers are pollinators, whose activity can be valued at €90 billion a year worldwide. Experts are now saying that the less-discussed natural pest control could also represent a value that exceeds that of pollination in crop production.
The logic then goes that by protecting biodiversity, the stability of the European food system is also protected. Economic resilience, in this optic, can be achieved through ecological resilience. While the reasons for the decline in biodiversity continue to be a threat – issues such as agricultural intensification, the use of agro-chemicals, the loss of landscape structure, land abandonment, intensely-managed forestry, pollution, climate change and invasive species – the Biodiversity 2030 Strategy seeks to place the EU’s nature on a path to recovery by 2030, while also allowing the EU to lead by example for other nations and regions to follow the same track.
Upcycling the CAP
This has already influenced one of the oldest, central and most controversial EU policies: namely the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). In June 2020, the European Court of Auditors published a Report on the performance of the CAP vis-à-vis biodiversity and showed that the CAP has been insufficient in counteracting the decline of biodiversity on farmland.
However, it is very likely that the CAP will continue to be the core policy in supporting farmers and it could be also the perfect opportunity to make the transition happen, since it is known that farmers reasonably tend to be driven by the level of payments and the economic considerations primarily.
It is for this reason that the new CAP, which is still under negotiations, will go through some redesigns. The Commission envisions two pillars: the first relates to introducing new delivery models with added support based on performance and greate subsidiarity and flexibility for Member States to design the public support according to local needs and conditions. At the same time, this new system also would ensure greater policy coherence with other EU policies and fields of legislation, including legislation related to biodiversity.
The second Pillar for the biodiversity enhancement of the CAP is a reinforced toolbox for biodiversity based on enhanced conditionality, with specific requirements on the protection of biodiversity at farm level, on more advisory services, on eco-schemes and a new green architecture. This will provide significant financial support for farms and has the potential to become a game-changer in this transition towards sustainability.
Farm-to-Fork Strategy: the precondition for Circular Agriculture
All of these activities have to be part of a more general framework, with a holistic approach, encapsulated in the new Farm-to-Fork Strategy. The Biodiversity 2030 and the F2F Strategies share a basic common goal: to enable society to live within planetary boundaries. In this respect, it is a helpful reminder that the food industry is one of the most globally-integrated industries ever: according to Oxfam’s ‘Behind the Brand’ project, ten (10) companies control most of the food and beverage supply of the world.
It didn’t use to be this way: for thousands of years, cities used to produce much of their food locally. Cities often grew around productive agricultural areas around the cities called ‘food bowls’. Even great metropolitan regions, such as Paris or Tokyo, were historically ringed by productive ‘food bowls’ that helped feed the city’s population.
Today, this productive land, with some of the world’s best soil, is mostly used by the creeping of commercial spaces and industry. What the Farm-to-Fork envisions is for a return to the concept of city ‘food bowls’ to shorten supply chain, to increase local agricultural production, to achieve a symbiosis between cities and the rural areas surrounding it and thus to improve the environmental footprint of agricultural production by simply changing the location where it takes place. How can this be done?
Circular Economy in Agriculture
Consider this: each year, cities generate more than 2.8 Billion tonnes of organic waste, with only 2% of this currently looped back into the system for reuse. Moreover, 68% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. Acknowledging the potential to use this organic matter to store more carbon in farmland, businesses, governments and other organisations are in a position to kick-start the transition towards a Circular Economy in the field of agricultural production.
The symbiosis of the city with its surrounding farmland is one of the clearest examples of how a circular economy can ‘close the loop’ between industries, citizens, municipalities, and farmers. Through the system that the F2F Strategy envisions, farmers close to cities have access not only to markets, but also to workers and transport infrastructure. Not only this, but with increasing circularisation, farmers could have access to water and nutrients from city waste streams and to biofertilizers from composting organic waste. This is what is called ‘nutrient recycling’, which is a much more productive use of waste than incineration. Farmers have their costs reduced, the public administration generates new revenue streams, ultimately impacting the amount of taxes we pay, while cities in turn get fresh, local food.
A circular economy in Agriculture thus builds resilience in the food system and improves food security. When global supply chains are disrupted, as we have seen during the pandemic, access to food is jeopardised. By reconnecting cities with local food production, balanced with a global supply, resilience gets built in the food supply chain so that, no matter the disruption, food can always be accessed by those who need it.
There’s more: as countries become richer and as the global middle-class expands, agriculture tends to be industrialised. Aside from the negative environmental effects that were addressed above, industrial agriculture also threatens the livelihoods of many smallholder farms, including the vast-majority of farm owners here in Europe, with possible knock-on effects such as the depopulation of rural areas. By connecting people with local food production in a circular agricultural production system, smallholder farms can be preserved, benefitting both their communities and the environment.
To put this in monetary terms, the city of Brussels stands to gain €108 Billion per year by producing just 30% of its food locally using regenerative practices, halving food waste and converting half of all remaining organic waste into high-quality compost.
However, if a policy perspective is not convincing enough, let’s look at it from a more practical perspective:
In a circular economy, food is produced regeneratively. Regenerative food production identifies a broad set of methods with two clear and complementary outcomes: the production of high-quality food and the improvement of the surrounding natural ecosystem. More accurately, it borrows from an older pre-industrial form of cultivation, updated and improved based on a better scientific understanding of soil, water and the relationships that exist in natural ecosystems. Regenerative agriculture recognises that farms are part of a larger ecosystem, and that agricultural activities must not just make withdrawals from this larger system, but also pay into it. The overall ambition shifts from extractive, linear thinking that prioritises high yields above all else, to establishing cycles of regeneration.
Diversity is key in a circular agricultural production system. A direct product of produce diversity is dietary diversity, which is considered good for our health by nutritionists. Dependence on only a small range of food types has led to concerns about diets being ‘energy-rich but nutrient-poor’, with micronutrient deficiencies affecting at least 1.5 billion people. Such diversity allows local insect populations to thrive, benefitting other species throughout the local food chain as a result. It is an example of how regenerative farming techniques build soil health enabling it to provide vital habitats for microorganisms at the start of the food chain — such as fungi and insects, and the animals that depend on them — and hold more water, improving fertility and productivity of the land.
Increasing use of organic fertilisers rather than chemical alternatives also yields health benefits, with the potential to reduce health costs by USD 550 Billion globally. Farm worker exposure to pesticides currently costs almost a trillion US dollars and long-term exposure to low levels of pesticides has been linked to cancer, asthma, depression, reduced IQ, and higher rates of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) — the last two alone are costing the EU an estimated €125 Billion each year.
A circular agriculture would also change and improve relations with consumers: when farmers are able to network directly with consumers, it allows them to plan crops through pre-sales and coordination between farmers, and usually dramatically improves their financial viability. It makes for less waste, and less stress.
In conclusion, evidence shows that regenerative approaches can both address the environmental and productivity needs. Farms that focus on soil health are experiencing year-on-year yield increase. A Circular Economy for food could reduce the sectors’ greenhouse gas emissions by 49%, or 5.6 Billion tonnes of CO2 by 2050, without taking into consideration the possibilities to further decrease that number with energy-related interventions, which again could be better planned through the city-farm symbiosis. The best part is that this transformation is right around the corner.